Today’s Song: The Pressure and Tension of Sir Sly’s “Expectations”

Sir Sly (Left to Right): Jason Suwito, Landon Jacobs, Hayden Coplen
Sir Sly (Left to Right): Jason Suwito, Landon Jacobs, Hayden Coplen

How did expectations get so high?
Got a wicked thirst to feel alive
How did expectations get so high?
Now I have nowhere to run and hide

California trio Sir Sly took the “indie” music world by storm in 2013 and 2014 with the ramp-up and release of their debut album, You Haunt Me (September 2014 via Interscope Records). An epic collage of dark sonic textures and intensely emotion-fueled lyrics, You Haunt Me captures not only the mix of electronic and rock elements that defines Sir Sly’s sound, but also the humanity of its three distinct core members: Passionate frontman Landon Jacobs, ambitious producer Jason Suwito and introspective drummer Hayden Coplen opened their hearts and poured what they had into the album, resulting in one of 2014’s most powerful, if not under-appreciated debuts.

You Haunt Me - Sir Sly
You Haunt Me – Sir Sly

Two rounds of heavy North American touring in late 2014 and 2015 found the band a little world-weary. Perhaps they felt lost in the mess of social, racial, and economical injustices that marred our nation; perhaps they needed time to absorb what was going on around them. Landon Jacobs expressed deep thought about the band’s time on the road, noting, “think it’s been an empowering time to be a musician, and to feel like you have a responsibility to think well about things, and for me to use my mind in a good way to give credence to the things I believe… That responsibility weighs heavily on my mind and on the way I try to filter through what’s going on.” Sir Sly had a lot brewing on the mind, and they must have been eager to get it from paper to record: No sooner did the band get off tour, than were they supposedly recording “LP2” in an exclusive studio in the Caymans (very funny, Hayden.)

And then, silence… More silence… The occasional, random gig… And back to prolonged inactivity. Rumors of the band’s breakup were batted away by assurances from its individual members that they were, in fact, hard at work on the album. Fans even got the occasional peek into Sir Sly’s recording process.

Finally, last week gave fans a taste of what they have been patiently waiting for: Nearly a year after Sir Sly’s final North American tour date, the band released a new song, the standalone “Expectations” with an accompanying note.

Listen: “Expectations” by Sir Sly

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“Last Fall, we set off on the process of writing LP2. “Expectations” was one of the first songs that came. Since then, the album has grown, transformed and been redefined. We are in a different place musically and mentally and “Expectations” no longer fits cohesively on the tracklisting. Still, we are immensely proud of this song and wanted to share it with you while we put the finish touches on our next release. Thank you for waiting. Enjoy.”

– Sir Sly, March 11 (via Facebook)

There’s nothing like a surprise drop to keep everyone on their feet for a few more months.

As always, Sir Sly have delivered a masterfully creative and honest work of art: “Expectations” is a beautifully haunting and epic piece that certainly captures the uneasy atmosphere of Winter 2015, but moreover it dives unapologetically headfirst into the psyche of a band coming off the success of its debut album. Is any word besides “expectations” appropriate here? No; and as usual, Sir Sly address their experience by confronting it directly.

Pressure’s on, pressure’s high
Pressure’s heavy on my mind
Weight is here, weight is right
Weight is heavy on my spine
Truth has holes; truth, it swells
Sometimes truth can feel like hell
And it’s full, and it swells
In the end, we’ll all be well

The stress of developing a follow-up to Sir Sly’s debut runs deep through these repetitious, self-aware lyrics, and rightfully so: No pressure is greater for a band than the pressure of the sophomore album. Though the words are simple, their careful, poetic placement betrays the great amount of thought that went on through their development: “Truth has holes; truth, it swells / Sometimes truth can feel like hell / And it’s full, and it swells / In the end, we’ll all be well.” These problems that seem big at the time, will one day be small and unimportant; yet that does not belittle their relevance in the momentEmotions run high when the world is at stake, and Jacobs’ words indulge in the complexity of those feelings.

"Expectations" single art - Sir Sly
“Expectations” single art – Sir Sly

Sir Sly are exposed: “Expectations” is a snapshot of the band at their most vulnerable. If we know it’s taken them a year to do this, then they certainly are aware. You can only thank people for their patience for so long before fans’ interests wane or evolve elsewhere. But fear can cloud your vision: It is not worth anyone’s time or energy focusing on the “what if’s,” especially when a tangible goal lies ahead in the distance. In the second verse, Jacobs sings, “Ideas move, ideas pull / Can ideas be controlled?” followed by six more lines focused on fearhope, and people. Sir Sly appear to be struggling to boil down that overflowing wellspring of ideas, struggling to take their insights and experiences and give them the kind of lyrical spin that maintains their authenticity while opening them up for universal resonance and interpretation. There isn’t nearly as much pressure on you to succeed when no one is watching, but once you start turning heads, people expect you to keep turning their heads again and again.

If that’s not enough destabilization, consider that the song’s bridge consists of the endlessly-repeated phrase, “Losing control.” This is not a weekend’s stroll through the park: This is the pain and strain of having to overcome a series of roadblocks on your route to achievement.

As gutting as these lyrics are, nothing is perhaps more palpable than the tension that soaks through this song’s seven fleeting musical minutes. A Pink Floyd-esque ambiance mixes with a heavy, driving and deep percussive beat to create an unsettling and unnerved musical environment. This is the kind of landscape in which tension thrives: The push to move forward is overwhelmingly strong, allowing no time for a second’s glance. Reverb-laden guitars, meanwhile, dwell in their effected states to provide contrast to the momentum-building beat. Jacobs’ singing is breathy, pained but pure atop the instrumentation. His singing is soft, yet his words are clear, fitting perfectly into the pockets.

Sir Sly
Sir Sly live in concert, 2015

In some senses, “Expectations” is classic Sir Sly: That deliberate juxtaposition of light and dark exists not just in the lyrics, but in the layering of instruments and in the production as a whole. At the same time, “Expectations” is different: Sir Sly build and develop the song through large instrumental breaks, displaying a confidence they proudly showed live on the road, but had yet to pursue on record. “Expectations” is the beginning of something new for the band, a glimmer of what’s to come and proof that they’re not rehashing You Haunt Me on “LP2.”

How did expectations get so high?
Got a wicked thirst to feel alive

As a standalone, “Expectations” is a daunting listening experience, but in point of fact, Sir Sly have done something quite brilliant with this song. “Expectations” takes the band’s present-day struggle – something most listeners might not consider on a daily basis – and blows it into a universally relatable, emotionally resounding message that captures the humanity of tension and stress.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but Sir Sly have always been ones to focus on the journey, more so than the end result. One of Sir Sly’s greatest assets is their ability to bring an emotionally complex situation to life; it is our job, as listeners, to find the resolution. “Expectations” serves as Sir Sly’s buffer between the past, and whatever’s to come from the Los Angeles trio.

Oh, and if any members of the band are reading this: We expect great things! 😉

"Expectations" single art - Sir Sly

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