Review Summary: I'm getting used to not having a clue
If you've spent any time listening to Mason Maggio's past projects, then you're already aware of his literary prowess and his affinity for taking life lessons and weaving them into spiritual/religious themes. Tigers on Trains and especially The Republic of Wolves are known for this, and it's part of what makes every experience with either band feel like an uncharted expedition into mythical terrain. On the other hand we have Souveneer, which unlike the aforementioned outfits is quite literally just
Mason - his solo project which dates back to 2016's Merit Badge Season
. There's nothing folkloric about Souveneer - Mason largely sings with what he describes as "unrestrained self-expression", featuring lyrics that evoke "more self-awareness and even a sense of humor." Look no further than 2021's Dream Journal
EP - and for those comparing titles, yes, the releases are thematically linked - which featured some of his most personal and depressing passages without having to name-check twelfth century demons. With 2022's Sleep Study
, we witness more of the humor and self-awareness that he alluded to. Rather than sinking to nearly unfathomable lows such as "When you were hopeless...you were right", it views everything through an almost whimsical lens, which could be viewed as evidence that the narrator has climbed out of depression, or perhaps merely as two different methods of approaching the same turmoil. In fact, there's a moment on 'Evelyn' that seems to perfectly summarize Mason's outlook on Sleep Study
: "thanks for teaching me the easy way / that you don’t have to hate your pain." It acknowledges that problems don't simply vanish with positive vibes, but that embracing such emotions as an integral, essential
part of life can help one process unpleasant obstacles in a healthier fashion. Dream Journal
hated its pain; Sleep Study
is amused by it.
There are plenty of times that Sleep Study
could come across as lackadaisical to the passive listener; it retains the (appropriately) ethereal atmosphere of its predecessor, much of the even pacing, and also features some fairly at-odds artistic decisions ranging from a group-chant callback of "what the fuck" to live audience samples. If you're not really in on the joke, then these inclusions will be more jarring than they were probably intended to be; it's very tongue-in-cheek and is meant to make light of the various forms of heartbreak that intersect Sleep Study
's narrative. The proof is in the print, where 'Origin Story' pokes fun at the songwriter's tendency to indulge in self-fulfilling prophecies ("I’m gonna tell myself that I’ve been through hell / I think it suits me well"), 'Act My Age' uses irony to illustrate the absurdity of giving up on one's dreams just to become another cog in the machine ("act my age, they’re gonna have to drag me off the stage...so catch me thriving in a fast-paced environment, gonna hang a bunch of shelves and maybe save for retirement"), 'That's What Concerns Me, Man' approaches dad-joke territory ("There’s a tree that they keep in a cage on a manicured lawn three blocks from our place / I don’t know if it did something wrong, but I’m willing to bet that it won’t from now on"), and 'Last Day Of The Year' equates life to a Netflix series ("cause it’s the last day of our lives you know...if we make it to the weekend, and they greenlight a new season / let’s at least pretend to like this show"). There will inevitably be some listeners coming fresh off Varuna
who will find it difficult to appreciate this thing's playfulness, but it's clear that Mason's goals are entirely different now than they've ever been in the past.
Don't mistake Maggio's newfound whimsy for any kind of lyrical decline, however; Sleep Study
still hits hard whenever it damn well pleases. 'That's What Concerns Me, Man' sneaks in the line "god I hope that we’re more than the things that we’ve felt", 'Midnight Math' floats through gorgeously lush Grandfather
-esque acoustics to arrive at the oddly impactful knockout blow "sometimes love is shutting the fuck up", and 'Meet Me In The Darkroom' says more with its breathtakingly starlit aura than any excerpt that I could possibly single out. The philosophical nuggets are strategically juxtaposed to contrast the emotionally aloof humor, and the result is a series of one-two punches that could paint Sleep Study
as either an absurd joke or inherently clever - it's up to you to decide. The closer, 'Runner's Heart', does seem to steer us towards the latter, though, via observations of how pain wears us down over time ("Is your life just happening to you? You don’t really want control do you? You know losing doesn’t hurt like it used to...") and keen reflections on identity and growth which culminate in the closest thing that Sleep Study
has to a rock crescendo: "Guess I don’t miss too much about the people I used to be / They’re all just cynical faces laid out in rows on a character screen / But every now and then I call one up to hear them breathe on the other line / I think I hear the call waiting tone / I bet that’s me checking in from the next life...I should answer, right?"
Most criticism and/or apathy, where it exists, will stem from Sleep Study
's relative calm on the instrumental front. Even in the face of blunt criticism, there'd still be a certain level of irony to enjoy when you consider the title of this EP (and its predecessor), the intentionally ethereal/dreamlike themes, and the fact that the whole thing was at least partially inspired by Mason's longtime battle with narcolepsy. Nevertheless, one can't entirely dismiss such critiques out of hand, because aside from 'Origin Story' and 'Runner's Heart', Sleep Study
does largely ebb and flow within its own comparatively mellow universe. Tigers on Trains fans will likely have less to complain about than Republic of Wolves diehards, but those coming in from an outside perspective with no prior knowledge of Maggio's work will at best find this mesmerizing and at worst find it lacking energy. If you're leaning towards the latter, then I'd point you to the lyrics as a means of lending gravity to the moment.
Taken in context, Sleep Study
delivers a worthy opposing view to Dream Journal
's pervading seriousness. It's more than just a different side of the same coin, though, as it demonstrates a measurable degree of maturation: if our existence - at-large and floating through infinite space - is out of our hands, then why worry? It's a sentiment best expressed when Maggio sings, "yeah it is what it is, you'll survive 'til you don't" alongside "I'm getting used to not having a clue." It's not giving up so much as it is embracing what you can
control and letting go of the rest. Sleep Study
seems to understand that perception is everything, and that's a message worth projecting when times get tough.