Artist: Sleeping at Last
Album: Atlas: Intelligence EP
In Brief: Three songs about the body, heart, and mind, in Sleeping at Last’s expected baroque pop style. The electronic pulses and plethora of subtle sounds working in tandem on “Mind” are an excellent touch, but aside from that, there’s not much new here.
I had a longer intro written out for my review of Sleeping at Last‘s latest EP, but honestly? It’s three songs. It doesn’t need that much of an intro when I’m basically saying the same thing I’ve said for most of the mini-song cycles in the Atlas series thus far – the pleasant, mostly mellow baroque pop style preferred by Ryan O’Neal is starting to feel a bit overly familiar, but the songs are still very pretty and show signs of inventiveness, and I sometimes wish for a bolder musical expression of the themes he’s lovingly crafted his lyrics around. Intelligence, the fourth EP in Year Two of this series, feels like a mere morsel compared to the nine-song Enneagram sweet that’s due to follow it (look for that to be complete some time in 2018 at this rate!), but its meditations on how the body, heart and mind govern different aspects of how we humans process and interact with the world around us are interesting if you’re willing to dig into the details.
The first track might be the biggest example of that nagging feeling I get with each new SAL release that it’s all sounding a bit familiar. I love that Ryan writes songs from a place of deep sensitivity and curiosity. But since we already had a song about the sense of touch on the Senses EP, it feels a bit redundant to have this mellow track, with its quivering strings and its predictably lofty chorus melody, representing the body. He’s trying to illustrate the magic that happens as the things sensed by our physical bodies get inform our emotions and our opinions of the world around us. It’s an intriguing concept to write about. But since the song is trying to personify the sort of intuition or gut feeling that happens before our hearts and minds can process the data, I feel like it falls short a bit for playing it so soft. Maybe I’m just going with my own gut feelings regarding how a song like this should sound, but I figure a song that’s more about physicality and instinct before reason should tap into something more primal and visceral. That may be a musical language that Ryan doesn’t tap into nearly as often, but we heard a more aggressive approach on tracks like “Wilderness” or “Anger”, so I know he’s capable of it.
Predictably, the song about the heart is a love song, and I actually don’t mind that this one delivers exactly what I would expect of it. Ryan’s always had an intuition for this sort of thing, and he’s correctly identified the piano and cello as instruments worthy of a song that tries to capture the exhilarating feeling of jumping into an uncertain situation with both feet, despite the risks, because you just know that it feels right. His melody manages to mix feelings of admiration and assurance that your love for someone is real, with a nervous sense of anticipation at the thought of wholeheartedly committing to them without any guarantees of what the future would be like. Musically, it fits in with countless SAL highlights that, while they may not be quite as musically adventurous as they probably deserve to be, are beautifully composed and performed. The lyrics are where Ryan really shines here, going beyond the usual love song language to put the theme of risk and reward front and center: “Go ahead and laugh, even if it hurts/Go ahead and pull the pin/What if we could risk everything we have/And just let our walls cave in?”
I wonder what it says about me as a listener that the track I relate to most on this EP is the one about the logical mind. I almost wonder if these three tracks serve as a bit of a litmus test for different kinds of listeners, who relate to music in different ways. While a host of largely subtle ingredients go into a lot of SAL’s songs, often times a casual listener wouldn’t be able to pick them out without reading Ryan’s blog entries about the recording process. In this song, they’re far more apparent, from the electronic keyboards mostly repeating a cold, logical note, to the human mouth sounds contributing to the percussion, to the backmasked piano, to the horns and the surprisingly audible bass, to the vocal humming of “zeroes and ones” in the background. It’s not a particularly loud or uptempo song, yet it’s a wall of sound in its own quiet way, an excellent representation of the complex machine that is the human brain. The language in this song is very scientific and analytical, yet Ryan leaves room for uncertainty as he admits, “We were designed to send mixed signals/One image made up of different pixels/All subject to interpretation.” We are fascinatingly intricate, but we are not merely computers that will always derive the same results from the same input. And I love that the song hints at that despite its facade of being a methodical observer at a distance. my favorite part of the song may actually be when all of the extra sonic elements melt away, leaving a piano to echo the song’s melody as if a bit of clarity had worked its way through all of the cluttered data fragments being processed, as Ryan sings the final two lines: “Patterns form and feel important/It’s the first brush stroke of a self-portrait.” Our perception of ourselves is more interesting than the cold hard facts of how we were built. This is an interesting note for Ryan to leave things on as he prepares to discuss the different personality types in his Enneagram series. Consider my curiosity piqued.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
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