Artist: Sleeping at Last
Album: Atlas: Enneagram
In Brief: While there isn’t as much interactivity between these songs as I had imagined there might be, the musical diversity and attention to detail in exploring each personality type makes it a worthwhile series of character studies. And with nine tracks exploring a consistent theme, it’s the closest thing to a traditional album that SAL has put out since the Space series during Year One.
Perhaps you’ve heard of this thing called the Enneagram? In a nutshell, it’s a model that breaks the human psyche down into nine different archetypes, and attempts to explain how all nine of those are interconnected, in ways that can be both complementary and dissonant. I honestly wasn’t familiar with the term until Ryan O’Neal, the singer/songwriter behind Sleeping at Last, announced how he had mapped out the aspects of the human experience he intended to explore on “Year Two” of his ongoing Atlas series. As it turns out, the Enneagram has been used quite a bit in context ranging from business to spirituality and self-help, with some seeing it as an incredibly useful tool of self-discovery that helps them to better manage their relationships to other people, and in some circles you’ll even find a rather cult-like devotion to the idea. Others write it off as pseudo-scientific fluff. I’m somewhere in between, since I’m always a sucker for personality tests and the different lenses they can help us to view ourselves through, but at the end of the day I’m not likely to base major life decisions on the results of those tests. It’s an area where I figure our understanding of ourselves is a bit fluid, and every attempt to sort us all into convenient categories is an abstraction at best. But what might not qualify as science still makes excellent fodder for art, and that’s where SAL’s attempt to personify each of the nine Enneagram types as individual songs comes into play.
If you’re not familiar with Sleeping at Last, then I’ll get you up to speed as quickly as I know how – the project began life as a three-piece indie rock band in the early 2000s, drifting away from an electric guitar-driven sound and more toward a hushed, piano and acoustic-guitar based brand of baroque pop over time. 2009’s Storyboards, made when SAL was still a duo, remains the last “album” they’ve put out in the traditional sense – everything they’ve done since then has been released online more or less as it was ready to unveil to the world, without needing to wait for a physical album release. The Yearbook series in 2010-11 found Ryan putting out a series of twelve three-song EPs with the crazy constraint of having to write and produce each one within the span of a month. Then at the beginning of 2013, he began the Atlas project, a project somehow even more ambitious in its scope, which is still ongoing today. “Year One” of that project lasted until early 2014, with the intent of describing the building blocks of the universe such as light, darkness, the solar system, and ultimately the land and seas that make up the Earth. “Year Two”, which began in 2015 and is just now wrapping up with the Enneagram series, brought things down a level to cover the building blocks of humanity. First there was the celebration of the beginning of Life itself and the earliest experiences that imprint upon us as children, then meditations on our Senses, Emotions, and Intelligence. Those EPs all ranged from 3-5 songs each, with Ryan adapting to a generally slower pace as his family life got busier, and he also began to juggle a wider range of products, also producing an unrelated series of instrumental songs about the exploration of space, and occasionally compiling an album of cover songs that he’d recorded for various TV show soundtracks or by popular request from the fans. He’s a busy man, so it’s understandable why it took close to four years to finally complete the second “Year” of the Atlas project (even though I’m sure he wishes he could go back in time and rename the project’s intended third phase to something other than “Year Three” at this point, seeing as he’ll probably finish it up somewhere around 2025 at this rate). It’s all been very thoughtfully produced, smartly written music, occasionally falling into predictable ruts, but sometimes genuinely surprising me with little side trips into more electronic or symphonic or ambient territory. While I miss the tangible album format, the Yearbook and Atlas series alone have produced roughly the equivalent of eight albums’ worth of material within the span of the decade (to say nothing of the other side projects that I haven’t fully delved into, and the podcasts explaining how a lot of these songs were made). There’s a wealth of material here that I think he’s done well to break up into smaller chunks so that each mini-project has an approachable theme. I couldn’t imagine having a clue where to begin if I was new to Sleeping at Last at this point due to the immense back catalogue, but the Enneagram does certainly give us a good overview of Ryan’s overall stylistic palette, willingness to experiment as the personality of the song seems to suggest, and knack for putting himself in the shoes of other people. That’s as good a selling point as any.
The challenge that I have with Enneagram, and that I’ve had with most of Year Two, is figuring out whether these songs are better enjoyed individually, or as an end-to-end listening experience. Year One, if I recall correctly, was released as a set of EPs, so you’d get five or six new songs all at once. Year Two has been released as the songs were completed, and I had personally opted to wait to hear most of them up until a complete EP was available, figuring I didn’t want to give an unfair amount of focus to the earlier songs in any of those sets. I gave up on that approach in early 2018 when only the first three Enneagram songs were available and I was unsure of how long it would take Ryan to finish the next six. Not waiting until mid-2019 to finally hear them all was a good call, I think, since a few of the standouts from the project so far became important pieces of my personal soundtrack at a few points in 2018. But up until “Nine” was finally completed in May, I hadn’t really listened to most of the songs back-to-back, preferring to save that experience until I had the full set. Does it play out as a traditional album when listened to that way? Not really. With nine songs, and a well-defined reason why there should only be nine songs, it skirts around my usual complaint that anything less than ten songs doesn’t feel like a true album – it’s a complete thought with a beginning and an end, and an obvious concept stringing all of the lyrical themes together. Musically, perhaps I was hoping for a bit more – some sort of connecting instrumental thread between neighboring songs to mimic the “wings” where one type can be influenced by a neighboring type, or some hidden Easter eggs that would quote or otherwise reference a separate song, implying some sort of harmony between non-adjacent types. While Ryan clearly put a lot of thought into the mood, arrangements, and especially the lyrics of these songs (to the point where he even had people who identified as the type for each song play on that particular song, and he’s embedded little recorded “fingerprints” of other people he knew who fit the types as well), each song is definitely its own thing. How one segues into the next, or how they flow as a complete experience, is no better or worse than it is on an album like Storyboards. You’re not necessarily going to be blown away by some sort of a grand story arc – it’s more like an art exhibit where you consider each piece independently and then move on. Perhaps, given his method of individually releasing each song, my expectations for how the complete package would turn out might have been a little unrealistic. But that’s the one thing I think could have bumped the Enneagram collection up from good to great.
For those who know the Enneagram types like the backs of their own hands, I should probably point out that I’m still a relative newbie to the concept, having done some basic reading on what each type is commonly called and what their general traits are, but mostly leaving it to Sleeping at Last to bring the concept to life for me. Thus, what I describe as I listen to some of these songs might not be wholly accurate to someone who knows the source material a lot better than I do. For me, an important part of this experience was to let Ryan tell these stories according to his own imagination, and see what sorts of scenarios or individuals those stories brought to my own mind. It’s like watching a movie when you haven’t seen the book it’s based on – I often find it helpful to go back later and learn about what was true to the source material and where some artistic license was taken, but I don’t fault the artist for taking that license as long as the preserving the spirit of the work seems to have been the intent. And that’s just something I trust him innately to do at this point, because he’s such a geek about digging into the little details of pretty much everything he sets out to write about. If this collection of songs opens some new people up to the concept, while those already familiar with it can find points where they sincerely identify with the songs that not only try to describe their types, but also give voice to how they each yearn for personal improvement, I’d say that’s a job well done.
The first song, which is about the Reformer/Perfectionist type, is easily my favorite of the nine. Up-tempo Sleeping at Last songs aren’t that rare, I suppose, but especially since the transition from band to solo project, they’ve felt increasingly more special to me because I feel like Ryan’s default mode is “heartfelt ballad”. So I was excited to hear the quick, staccato notes from the piano take off at a rather brisk pace here. It’s meticulous and also a bit hurried, trying to depict the struggle of the Reformer type, which is apparently to try to optimize everything to their personal satisfaction. Imperfections are a major headache for Ones, according to this interpretation, and the song depicts a person so obsessed with erasing all the aberrations in his life that he’s downright exhausted and has left no room for error or experimentation. His stated goal is “I want to sing a song worth singing/I’ll write an anthem worth repeating/I want to feel the transformation/A melody of Reformation.” But by the end of the song, when the pounding on the piano keys backs off a bit and there’s a little more room for the strings and vocals to shine through on their own, he acknowledges that “I’ve spent my whole life searching desperately/To find that grace requires nothing of me.” Ryan has a knack for positioning the most impactful line of a song so that it’ll hit the listener right as the song comes to a close, and he may have done that with the most striking lyric on the entire album here.
The second track, which is about the Helper/Giver type, fools me briefly into thinking we’re already going into sparse piano ballad mode, but the strings actually pick up the pace a reasonable amount, so this turns out to be a nicely flowing, unapologetically sentimental anthem about the type of person who promises “I will love you without any strings attached”. (Note the irony in the arrangement here being mostly string-driven.) The vows being made here are purposefully over the top, so dramatic that it makes them downright impractical – “You know I’ll take my heart clean apart, if it helps yours beat” and “You can take the oxygen straight out of my own chest” are prime examples of how a Two’s lack of inhibition in this area can preoccupy them so much with caring for a loved one that they forget to also take care of themselves. This is the language of melodramatic love songs, and I appreciate how Ryan has fully leaned into that, throwing caution to the wind, but also giving us hints that this person might need to slow down a bit and allow themselves to be loved and cared for, too, because they’re taking on so much that they’re likely to hit a breaking point before too much longer.
For the third type, the Achiever/Performer, things come to a screeching halt, much like they did for tracks like “Needle and Thread” or “Naive” back when Sleeping at Last made physical albums. I don’t mean that as a detriment to the song; it’s just that songs like these can really kill the flow of an album or a setlist, and that doesn’t seem to be something that Ryan pays a ton of attention to (and to be fair, if this was the musical mood that he decided best fit a Type Three, I think he was better off deliberately ignoring the sequencing issue to keep the songs in numeric order). It’s one of those songs where a spare piano line follows the vocal melody, for the most part – flourishes of strings and angelic backing vocals can be heard from time to time, but for the most part the song backs off of the melodrama considerably. It’s appropriate for a character who seems to have spent so much of his life on stage, putting on an act to entertain people, that he has no real frame of reference for who he truly is outside of other people’s accolades and criticisms. So his moment of epiphany is: “I finally see myself/Through the eyes of no one else/It’s so exhausting on this silver screen/Where I play the role of anyone but me.” By the end of it, he’s resolved to let more of his flaws show through so that people might know his authentic self (and thus, he himself might know it a little better too). The moral of the story is a nice parallel to that of “One” when he proclaims in the final lines “Gold, silver, or bronze hold no value here/Where work and rest are equally revered.”
Fours are the Individualist/Romantic types – I don’t personally test as this type, but I strongly relate to how it is typically described, so it’s likely that four is my “wing”. Ryan’s arrangement for this song leans heavily classical, moving along at a slow but graceful pace with soft woodwinds and fluttering strings, occasional crescendoes to help get us into the mindset of an artist revering his ability to create something unique as the highest virtue there is, and maybe giving way to melancholy tendencies and placing a bit too much importance in his need to be a wallflower in the process. There are subtle darks and lights here, and while I really appreciate the effort it must have taken to carefully arrange a piece like this one, I don’t find it to be one of the stronger tracks in terms of its melody or replay value. I remember what elements it contains, but I keep forgetting how it “goes”, if that makes any sense. Maybe it’s because I find myself relating to this type, but I guess I expected more than the underrated approach that Ryan took here – something to really drive home that “reflection of magnificence hidden in you, maybe even in me”.
I am most definitely a Five. This is the Investigator/Observer type – the type who loves analyzing things, picking them apart, wanting to understand the minutiae of what makes them tick. I don’t think I’d be writing music reviews that attempt track-by-track analysis of every single album, if I wasn’t constantly having my curiosity sparked by the listening experience and feeling that desire to document the things I was noticing or that I had questions about, in the hopes of occasionally running across another person who had actually listened closely enough to have similar thoughts, to debate me on the things I thought I was hearing, or even to pick it up and listen for the first time because they were intrigued by what I wrote. Sigh… I’m going on about myself when I should be going on about this beautiful, strangely abstract song. The very first thing I noticed was that it was much longer than the usual 3-4 minute space a Sleeping at Last song occupies. It’s almost six minutes long – 5:55 to be exact! – and the first two minutes are entirely instrumental, giving the wispy string arrangement (which has all the calling cards of Jeremy Larson, a frequent SAL collaborator), the ambient “space” noises in the background, and the soft, electronic rhythm that eventually comes in. I don’t mind the sparse arrangement that takes a while to come together, because it’s bringing together subtle pieces of disparate musical worlds in a way that scratches a very specific itch I had, for SAL to break out of the confines of “radio-length” songs a little more. The first lyrics, though they show up almost halfway into that song, immediately grab my attention: “I want to see the universe expand.” That gives purpose to the entire non-verbal part of the song, right there, because it’s like the artist has been so carefully contemplating during that time that they were afraid to speak up prematurely and ruin the moment. There’s a bit of self-discovery happening deeper in the song, when the singer turns the lens on himself, realizing he can’t remain a dispassionate, scientific observer if he actually wants to engage with the universe and experience it in messier, but more meaningful ways. So his promise is to let himself be taken apart and observed, with the hope of being more fully known by the others around him. So his universe expands not just through attaining knowledge, but through building relationships that keep him from going down the dark, existential rabbit hole that I know we Fives at our worst can often be capable of. I feel known when I listen to this song. I can’t speak for the other types, I guess, but SAL totally nailed this one.
Six is described as the Loyalist, or Loyal Skeptic. To be honest, it’s one of the more difficult types for me to understand, and the song about it is unfortunately my least favorite on the album. I suppose I admire the mellow, jazzy undertones (I mean in the sense of an older Sleeping at Last song like “Bright and Early” or “Pacific Blues” that had subtle jazz influence, though there are times when this arrangement reminds me of something you might hear on an old Christmas album as well). And I appreciate the ambition and the intent to do things differently. But much like the problems I had with “Four”, this one just isn’t sticking with me – no matter how much I listen, there’s this nagging gap between “Five” and “Seven” (possibly due to those being much more engaging songs) where I just plain can’t remember much of anything that happens when I’m not actively listening to it. The lyrics describe an especially vulnerable moment in a Six’s life, a dream in which they are floating to heaven, but could only remain focused on all of the worries and fears back on Earth that they couldn’t get out of their mind. Losing close friends or whatever they consider a support system is a paralyzing fear for Sixes, apparently. So the lesson that the Six is trying to put into practice here is one of trust, that they will not suddenly be abandoned by their loved ones for no reason, even though they cannot be assured of any factual guarantees that this is the case. I like the idea of this song, but I wish the arrangement made that sense of fear more palpable.
Seven is the Enthusiast (or Epicure – a word which I had to look up and that apparently means one who pursues pleasure/happiness), and their song, which is acoustic-guitar based with a spring in its step, is appropriately exuberant. The Seven wants to make a list of all his life goals and do them all now, throwing caution to the wind. The chorus expresses a restlessness and hunger “for whatever comes next”, and it feels like there’s even a delight in not being sure what that is, because he is sure that it will be new and different and exciting. The maturation process for the Seven seems to involve a willingness to stay put and invest in long-term relationships and to find new leaves to turn over even in the places that feel samey or stifling – things which can be hard for someone drawn to wanderlust and spontaneity. As much as I can get on board with this type’s desire to get out there and see the world, I’m more prone to calculating the risk behind every new adventure and I’m often given to worry about whether the discomfort will outweigh the excitement of being in a truly unfamiliar environment. So I aspire to be a Seven in a lot of ways, but my “Five-ness” often gets so obsessed with knowing all of the possible things that could happen before I actually go out and have the experiences for myself. Still, I related so strongly to this song and its eager desire to peek around the corner to what’s coming up next, that I chose it as the ending song for the very last “personal soundtrack” playlist I made for myself in 2018, sort of as a way to welcome in the new year. So it definitely means a lot to me, even if it describes the idealized me more than the actual me.
Type Eight is the Challenger/Protector. I’ve found it interesting in this series when Ryan has had to write about something that demands more of an aggressive approach, such as “Anger” on the Emotions EP, because it’s not an obvious part of his DNA as a songwriter. This song approaches the need to fight for the honor of those whom the Eight loves by including horns that give a series of short bursts that I find myself wanting to describe as “punches” or “jabs”, with the intent not being to hurt others, but to form a protective barrier around the vulnerable, and warn the outside aggressor that they will not get past without a fight. This character strikes me as the activist or social justice type – the one whose heart bleeds the most for the oppressed and whose first response is to strike back angrily out of a deep sense of moral obligation. Their weakness, ironically, lies in their strength, and their determination to not be seen as vulnerable, to the point where it apparently locks out the very people they are trying to love sometimes. I hear parallels to both “Five” and also the song “Son” from the Life EP way back in 2015, where a person who is expected to be tough and stoic actually finds inner strength in being open and letting others in. As the song deconstructs from its initial prickly exterior and starts to become more of an intimate ballad, and then bounces back again as the strings, horns, and drums reach a pounding crescendo, it’s apparent that the Eight has found a much more formidable center that their opponent will not be able to shake. I like the abrupt ending here – Ryan’s normal trick is to end a song suddenly on a profound lyric, but usually the notes themselves get to resolve. Here it just cuts off in the most deliberate and jarring way possible – which might not be an ideal transition into the final track, but it was a nice surprise when listening to the track as a standalone.
Ryan finally finished the project in May with this touching piano ballad, the one that describes his own type, the Peacemaker/Mediator. One might argue that a Nine would be ideal to take on such a songwriting project, since they’re the most inclined to see the best in everyone, and want them all to live in harmony as better understanding of self leads them all to have better relationships with one another. But Ryan has also admitted he’s a procrastinator, and that’s why this very personal song took him quite a long time to write. Right up front, he admits that he feels unworthy of the task: “Who am I to say what any of this means/I have been sleepwalking since I was fourteen.” As with most songwriters who struggle with writer’s block, that has worked its way into the actual lyrics of the song, and there’s more than a touch of sadness to it as it dawns on him that there’s a part of himself that might have gone unacknowledged or unfulfilled for more than half of his life thus far. Rhythm is a bit of a loose concept here – the structure of the song is still verse/chorus, but there’s a graceful slowness to it, with the piano occasionally rippling like the gentlest of disturbances on a serene pond, that isn’t beholden to a metronome, so it can take brief pauses for reflection whenever it needs to. And the subtle choral touches add a sense of awe and reverence to it – they’re not quite as upfront as they were in “Sight”, but they give off a similar aura. Nines are notorious conflict avoiders, and that may account for some of the fugue state he feels like he’s spent most of his life in, so his own personal resolution as the album wraps up seems to involve more active verbs than passive ones: “Stand up/Fall in love again and again and again/Wage war on gravity/There’s so much worth fighting for, you’ll see.” Maybe friction and discomfort will arise from some of these attempts at times, but ultimately he believes it’s worth it because “To know and love ourselves and others well/Is the most difficult and meaningful work we’ll ever do.” For a songwriter whose hallmark is a tendency to close on a killer line, that may be one of his all-time best. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about him from this song, and myself and a few other people from this album in general, so I’d definitely say he’s accomplished his goal with this one.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: