Artist: Sleeping at Last
Album: Atlas: Emotions EP
In Brief: While the lyrics do a great job of explaining the inner workings of each human emotion, the music doesn’t always live up to the emotion being expressed. It’s still a worthwhile and intriguing new entry in the Atlas series, but it’s more of a study than an actual experience of emotion.
The next stop on Sleeping at Last‘s journey to map out the human experience in song tends to be one of the harder parts of that experience to put into words: emotion. Sure, emotion probably drives the lion’s share of contemporary songwriting, while relatively little of it is about such brainy pursuits as understanding our five Senses. But composing music that allows you to both live in an emotion and understand what makes it tick is hard work. Usually it’s one or the other – an artist writes a song while they are happy, frustrated, melancholy, etc., and it comes out more as a snapshot of that feeling than a coherent explanation. Or else it’s more of a post-mortem after that emotion is experienced and the writer has returned to a more level-headed space where they can articulate it. I feel like a lot of Ryan O’Neal‘s writing tends to exist in that more balanced headspace, where the emotion is being analyzed and documented after the fact. Specifically in setting out to write songs about the four primary emotions we experience, the lyrics seem to do more of the explaining than the music lets us do the feeling. It’s not a bad thing, because as always his words are incredibly insightful, but since the tone of so much of his music tends to be thoughtful, peaceful, maybe a bit sad but never terribly agitated, emotions like Anger and Fear are going to be a lot harder for him to capture than Joy and Sorrow. (Sorry, Inside Out fans, there’s no Disgust here. I wonder if he’ll get some snarky negative comments for that.) So how’d he do with these? Let’s dive in.
Since I alluded to Inside Out, and I know Ryan is probably an even bigger Pixar fan than I am, I’ll go ahead and assume that the personification of Joy from that movie was on his mind when he wrote this one. The music is bubbly, with its marimbas and its exciting drum rolls, and its staccato strings that remind me very much of “Tethered” from the Yearbook series. The lyrics even circle back to the observation “It’s a glimpse of light in a mine of gold”. So I can’t help but see those shiny gold memory bubbles floating around in my mind’s eye whenever I listen to this one. SAL does the up-tempo stuff sparingly, yet when they do it’s pretty much always a highlight. Ryan’s boyish voice, while it has a tougher time selling the darker songs on this EP, is the perfect fit here, as he sings with the exuberance of a man fondly recalling childhood memories. (Listen closely and you’ll hear the excited shrieks of a child playing – probably his oldest daughter – in the background.) Joy, being a more robust emotion that superficial happiness, seems to be characterized here as the connecting thread that gives a person a reason to keep going, to be optimistic and see the good even in tough situations. That’s the place Ryan seems to write from even in his moodiest songs, so it’s clear that this subject was a natural fit for him, and he aced it.
Melancholy strings, and a long drawn-out run time make sense for a song that tries to depict the gloomy storm clouds of sorrow. These are the right ingredients, but to me, something about the melody and tone of the song never quite gets past a vague sense of weariness into the real meat of sadness. I think it’s an emotion that Ryan understands well and has incorporated into his work at certain times in the past. There are these pregnant pauses in his lyrics that have been a staple of his songwriting as far back as some of the mellower songs on Ghosts. And I love the wisdom expressed in the lyrics: “Where there is light, a shadow appears/The cause and effect when life interferes/The same rule applies to goodness and grief/For in our great sorrow, we learn what joy means.” But there’s something in the intelligent explaining of sorrow – in that very same habit of finding the silver lining in it that worked in Joy’s favor – that distances the song from the true experience of feeling sorrow. Maybe I’m just used to music that faces depression in much more raw and unflinching terms, without needing to tie a lesson learned onto it right away. I still think what he’s done here is beautiful, but I get the nagging feeling that it should be more of a moving, tear-jerking piece of music, and it doesn’t quite get there.
I’m going to sound a bit contradictory as I review this one, because I adore this song every bit as much as I did “Joy”, but I’m torn over whether the description of Anger here is adequately expressed in musical form. I happen to love what Ryan did with this one on a musical level – it’s certainly the most aggressive thing he’s done in a long while, with its rapid-fire blasts of percussion, its edgy (by Sleeping at Last standards, anyway) guitar ambiance and its furious strings. It has the same sort of climactic resonance as a lot of my favorite up-tempo tracks from SAL’s early years as a full-on indie rock band, but it’s not as guitar-focused as their early work. That’s fine, because highlighting percussion in an indie or baroque pop sort of song pretty much always gets me excited. This certainly sounds tumultuous, but I guess my idea of how anger would come out in music would be a little more dissonant, not as well-mannered in the vocal department, more prone to startling musical moments that make the listener uncomfortable, etc. The melody certainly stays with me despite it having more of a “soaring melancholy” quality than a truly irritated one, so this is the rare case where I’m not 100% sure if the music fits the lyrics, but I love what he’s done with both aspects of the song enough to overlook it. Understanding your own anger is worthwhile pursuit, I think, and the way Ryan uses nature metaphors to describe the damage done by an angry rant as though it were a massive earthquake leaving cracks in the ground that won’t heal quickly is a really interesting approach. Being just self-aware enough to know the pain your anger inflicts on others, but not under control enough to recognize it and stop yourself in the heat of the moment, is a conundrum that I know all too well, and this song describes some of my tantrum-prone days a little better than I’m fully comfortable admitting.
I alluded to this when reviewing the track “Hearing” from Senses, but this time I’m just gonna come out and say it. While SAL’s instrumentals are usually pretty interesting, I’m really starting to feel like the quota of one instrumental per EP was instituted as a way of saving Ryan some time. I can’t say for sure that it’s easier to compose, arrange, and produce five-plus minutes of music such as this than it is to write a standard-length pop song, but Ryan takes such great care in piecing together his lyrics that I can only assume it’s nice for him to give himself a break from it once per song cycle. (He’s a fully independent artist, so he gets to make the rules.) There are definitely a lot of interesting things going on in this track, with some glitchy electronic noises and foreboding bass notes interrupting the otherwise calm, quiet night depicted by the piano and strings. Listening for the background elements can be really rewarding in a track like this. However, there’s nothing here that your average adult listener would find startling or even really all that creepy, so you probably wouldn’t know this track was meant to evoke fear if you weren’t aware of the title. For the most part it reminds me of slightly mischievous ghosts tiptoeing in the night, something that perhaps might scare a small child (which makes sense, due to the track being inspired by a relatively new father having to comfort a young child who couldn’t sleep through the night), but that would seem merely quirky to the rest of us. There’s too much tranquility bookending the weirder bits here. It’s certainly an enjoyable piece of music to listen to, more so than some of the other instrumentals in the Atlas project thus far, but only by taking a few more musical risks could SAL really have depicted a sonic landscape that did the subject justice.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: