Artist: Sleeping at Last
Album: Atlas: Senses EP
In Brief: A set of songs about the five senses should make you feel something. Sleeping at Last’s Ryan O’Neal succeeds at this in his usual modest but heartfelt way.
The second installment of Sleeping at Last‘s Atlas: Year Two is devoted to the five human senses: Touch, Taste, Smell, Hearing, and Sight. It’s interesting to think how much advance planning it must have required of Ryan O’Neal to map out every single song title for each “year” of the intended three-year cycle that is Atlas so far ahead of time, and yet not really know how each individual song was going to take shape until he sat down to write it. As always, this results in a collection of songs where a casual listen might not even make the theme obvious if you didn’t have the song titles in front of you for reference, but where the dots start to connect in fascinating ways as you dig deeper into the lyrics and some of the musical textures. I’d consider the five songs that make up this installment to be less of a summary of what each sense is all about (though it is informed by some nerdy science and anecdotal evidence he stumbled across in his presumably many hours of Googling and book browsing), and more of a snapshot, a self-contained story related to each sense or the lack of it. Musically, nothing here expands too much on the well-established, mostly mellow, sort of folksy, baroque pop sound that Sleeping at Last settled into back in the Storyboards days, but the inclusion of a more jubilant, up-tempo track than the usual, an instrumental, and an organ and choir-driven piece all help to keep things from feeling samey. Overall, it’s a solid chapter in a story that’s advancing way more slowly than I’d prefer, but gradually getting pieced together nonetheless.
My mind has a tendency to categorize the slower, sparser Sleeping at Last songs all into the same category because they don’t jump out at me musically as much as the more layered or adventurous songs do, so for a while I just sort of overlooked this one. The truth is that it needs to sound bare-bones and a bit isolated at first, because it’s a song about losing one’s ability to feel. Apparently losing the physical sense of touch is a terrifying phenomenon that can actually occur to rare, unfortunate individuals, and here Ryan explores what that might be like while making a clear analogy to the more common experience of becoming numb to one’s emotions while going through a period of depression or trauma. As the tender strings come in and the song begins to build, you get the sense that he’s trying to reverse the degenerative process before it’s too late: “All I want is to flip a switch before something breaks that cannot be fixed.” At its core, this might be one of SAL’s saddest songs, but it also has a hint of hope and it’s even quite prayerful at its conclusion. Lyrically, it might be among their best work, as it reminds us that painful physical and emotional sensations are often there to help us and they shouldn’t be ignored. “Pain’s a well-intentioned weatherman, predicting God as best he can.” There’s some excellent poetry here for those willing to examine it more closely.
We get a pretty severe case of mood whiplash here, as this next track might be the most joyous thing SAL has ever recorded. With bright layers of ukulele, piano, strings, and backing vocals, it has a galloping, cinematic sort of feel to it, and the whole thing is designed as a celebration of discovering new flavors and bonding with the people you’re privileged to sit at the table with. It’s laid out like a toast, an ode to “Breaking all the rules, to breaking bread again”. Its stated goal of “I want to be astonished” is a lot like how I view life on my best days, and my ears are just naturally drawn to upbeat and yet deeply layered compositions such as this one. I don’t think we’ve heard anything this jubilant on Atlas since a few tracks on the Light EP, so of course I’m going to single this one out as a personal favorite.
This exploration of the relationship between scent and memory is a bit more understated, but it flows along quite nicely, and the gently plucked ukulele and delicate piano remind me of a few favorite tracks from Storyboards and Yearbook, such as “Porcelain”, “Watermark”, or “Aperture”. I really identify with the subject matter on this one, as it’s very easy for something as seemingly mundane as the scent of a soap or air freshener to bring random memories from my childhood rushing back into my brain, memories that I otherwise might not remember even if someone else who had been present gave me a play-by-play of the events I had experienced. “And just like that, I believe in ghosts”, Ryan sings at one point, which is a nice little nod to the album that got me into SAL way back in 2004 when they were still a three-piece alt-rock band. (Ryan just loves putting those little Easter eggs into nearly every song he writes, making SAL’s entire discography function like some sort of intrinsically linked cosmic web.) There’s a flourish of strings near the end that helps bring the song to a climax, but otherwise I figure this one will be a bit of a “dark horse” favorite for me, not necessarily a song a lot of folks would choose as a standout.
The instrumental track, once a bit of a novelty for the band (and perhaps even a necessity due to time constraints) when it started to make the occasional appearance on the Yearbook EPs, seems to have become a standard feature of SAL’s song cycles these days. I like the idea of making “Hearing” a track where the music alone tells the story, and aside from some very faint vocals in the background, there are no words to tell us what it means.
Like a lot of their instrumentals, this one has a bit of a film score feel to it, and normally that brings a sense of drama and anticipation that can’t be communicated as easily through a conventional pop song, but here, due to the use of a repeating piano motif throughout this four-minute track, there isn’t as much room for it to shift and change over time. It’s more of a conventional instrumental build that comes to a sudden conclusion, and I feel like the adherence to structure makes it less satisfying. Past instrumentals like “The Ash Is in Our Clothes” or any of the tracks from the Oceans suite could at least turn a melodic corner to reach an emotional climax, and that doesn’t really happen here. I do like how there are some hidden details buried in the sound that reward closer listening, which I think is an aspect of SAL’s compositions that often goes unnoticed (at least by those who haven’t read his “How It Was Made” blogs on each of the Atlas songs), but that alone doesn’t make a composition great, just vaguely interesting.
This is the one song that I think is truly new territory for SAL, though not in a way that would necessarily alter their core sound going forward, because due to the nature of the song, it’s one of those things that will likely only work once. The ability to see things is approached in more spiritual terms here, and while Ryan has a long history of alluding to his faith in his song lyrics, this is perhaps the most clearly “religious” song he’s ever recorded. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s an author tract, because I think the song actually celebrates someone who has the ability to see the supernatural amidst the natural in ways that he struggles to. He’s expressing a healthy respect for someone else’s faith, their ability to see “The Holy Ghost in broad daylight”. The song is actually sung acapella at first, with just Ryan’s voice and some choral background vocals, and not too far in, they bring in an organ to complement the pristine, “churchy” space that the song inhabits. It’s hard to pull off this sort of a “sacred” atmosphere without it being cloying, but SAL shows legitimate reverence here, and the effect is striking. It’s interesting how even a song like this, with its quiet beginning and the epic proportions it reaches for at the end, still comes to a rather abrupt conclusion. A common thread throughout the various genres SAL has tried on for size over the years is that Ryan really likes to end a song suddenly on a striking lyric, perhaps the thesis statement of a song or an idea that was expressed earlier on but which is now seen in a new light. Here, “I see the reflection in your eyes” gets to carry that weight, almost whispered as the song concludes, deliberately without fanfare.
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