I do not usually proactively seek out new music, so I make no pretensions about uncovering anything hitherto unknown. But whenever I come across new music (even if it’s only new to me) that instantly entrances me and engrosses my attention, it’s difficult to not want to share, even at the risk of peddling what may be old hat.
Sleeping At Last (composed of one Ryan O’Neal) is, as far as I can gather in admittedly cursory searches, fairly well known, having had music appear in numbers of films and tv shows that I will never see nor care to. O’Neal’s unique vocal stylings are certainly hard to miss or forget.
The newest album- Atlas: Year One– is actually a compilation of a number of EPs released by O’Neal over the past year, having a total track count of 30(!) songs. There are very few albums I would listen to straight all the way through, and Atlas: Year One manages to be one of those, simply an exceptional musical experience.
Despite being a compilation of EPs, Atlas: Year One feels like a solid and cohesive whole, with each song ebbing and flowing out of the previous and into the next. I usually listen to albums on shuffle, but to do so detracts from the experience with Atlas: Year One. I don’t know if O’Neal intended such a tight integration, but the movement of each piece carries you along as if on a journey. The opening track Overture appropriately begins with the line
It starts, with our eyes well acquainted with the dark,
The mind was made to illuminate the heart
teasing out the intellectual, emotional and musical path ahead. The refrain betokens the almost revelatory nature of the remainder of the album:
Even after everything we’ve seen
We haven’t caught a glimpse of what it means
In the architecture of the soul
The universe began with our eyes closed
Atlas: Year One is filled with extraordinarily intelligent songwriting, the lyrics avoiding the trite and cliched but rather straining at metaphors and images to express the vastness of the scope of the album, which is nothing less than the universe in all its wonder and meaning, and how love opens up the heart to be filled by that wonder in infinite ways. Indeed, in I’ll Keep You Safe he might be accused of mixing too many metaphors, as the beloved is compared to an architect, a painter, a writer, a clockmaker and a jewel collector! But the delicacy of the rippling arpeggios forgives all, and the refrain swells to a sweetness that would be cheesy were it not perfectly balanced by another metaphor which pulls the experience out into the panoply of life in all its seasons:
The sound of the branches breaking under your feet
The smell of the falling and burning leaves
The bitterness of winter
Or the sweetness of spring
One of the most surprising aspects of Atlas: Year One is that while there seems to be a lot of repetition in the phrasing and instrumentation, it is a repetition that builds upon itself and grows with the rest of the album. As my brother noted: “It’s a bit redundant, but in a good way.” O’Neal’s vocal style certainly contributes to this, but manages to feel like a part of the music that evolves and moves the whole project forward rather than becoming locked into one way of going about it.
This album has what I would describe as essentially flawless production. Each song feels like an organic unity that breathes and dances together amongst all its parts. The instrumentation at times carries a phrase forward, at other times backs off to give space for an emotion to blossom or for a more delicate balance to be struck. On Earth– perhaps the standout track of this album– we find this line in the refrain:
Fault lines tremble underneath my glass house.
But I put it out of my mind
The first time through the instrumentation begins to swell in anticipation, promising a big payoff as is common in many refrains. But as the vocal comes to the line “But I put it out of my mind,” the production backs off as if mirroring this thought. An earthquake is metaphorically beginning to shake and it feels as if the world is collapsing around, and so the instrumentation rises. But as the thought is put out of the mind, it’s as if it fades into the background with the production, an echo in the dark that falls into silence, albeit still lying in wait.
The refrain concludes with what might perhaps be one of the best descriptions of the internal struggle we all face between what we know to be true and what we tell ourselves to justify an action:
I bend the definition
Of faith to exonerate my blind eye
This is songwriting at its best, and the entire album is full of this kind of thoughtful production. Each track carries the sense of almost being alive in this unity, as the melodies and instrumentation undulate as one and yet have their own characteristic. The production is at times deceptively simple, but because there is such a tight unity repeated hearings offer forth brand new nuances missed the first time around. The marriage of feeling and deep intelligence in the writing is perfectly captured in Saturn, as the wonder of the infinite is somehow captured in a few lines:
You taught me the courage of stars before you left
How light carries on endlessly, even after death
With shortness of breath, you explained the infinite
How rare and beautiful it is to even exist
This track begins with an achingly beautiful rendition of the melody on cello, echoed by produced piano in a sparse mimicry, which only sets the table for a truly exquisite song. It is difficult to not feel a soaring in one’s soul as the vocals join in with this almost cosmic elaboration on what has come before.
Atlas: Year One concludes with five gorgeous instrumental offerings, Pacific and Atlantic easily being two standout tracks from the whole. Pacific is minimalistic bliss, and to me someway reminiscent of something one might hear while playing Minecraft (which is a good thing!). Atlantic is haunting and intricate, yet airy like a diaphanous dress. The repetition of the piano gives space for the cello and accompanying strings to weave in and out, evoking the calmness of an endlessly stretching ocean.
This album is overflowing with intelligent writing and heartfelt phrasing, and has quickly become one of my favorite albums of all time. There is so much to love about it and discover within, that the only question is why you are still bothering to read this and haven’t bought it yet.