Let’s get this out of the way right at the start: Aly & AJ can do no wrong. Last year’s deluxe release of their “Ten Years” EP was a delight of synth-pop excellence, and today’s “Sanctuary” EP release is just as euphoric.
The previously released “Church” opens the five-track experience, and makes a bold initial statement: “I do bad things for the sake of good times. / I don’t, I don’t regret.” Clearly the Michalka sisters have done some questionable things during their lives, and are on the verge of repenting, hence the song’s locale being “the middle of church.” It’s not a religious song per se, but rather a soul-cleansing admission of fault – and one that asks not for forgiveness, but “redemption.” The vocoder effect evokes some Imogen Heap-like inflections, and does a wonderful job of creating an echoing sound that would not feel out of place in the sisters’ version of a church. It’s an achingly beautiful piece of music, and its universal appeal is simple: don’t we all just “need a little church”?
If “Church” saw the duo as sinners, the follow-up track “Don’t Go Changing” sees them transform into saviors. Pleading with a lover who’s begun to turn away, the sisters swap verses laying out what they see as issues in the other person: they’re “acting like a stranger” and “don’t talk”. They come together in a pleading chorus of acceptance: “Whoever told you you’re not good enough?” It’s a genuine reassurance that one is fine the way they are – “secondhand news” be damned.
On to the new material!
“Star Maps” is an immediate stand-out with its bouncing beat and playful lyrics. There’s a mature yearning here that is underlined by the duo begging “Have you seen my face; the look in my eyes / Do whatever it takes – I’ll die for it.” Yes, the sisters are deeply in love and don’t care what gets burned in the process: a house, the map of the stars, clearly, whatever it takes. This is pop music at its finest, a joyous celebration of love that is both lyrically charming and sonically uplifting.
If “Star Maps” is the night before, then “Not Ready to Wake Up” is the morning after, quite literally. Here, Aly & AJ find themselves with “so many emotions” (yes, I’m taking this as a subtle nod to Carly Rae Jepsen’s masterpiece, which would work so well in a shuffle playlist of the two artists). The significant other here, now fully “un-changed” from before, is a sight to behold, and more than enough for the sisters in this moment of bliss. (“Not ready to wake up / My real life feels like dreaming”). If you ever find yourself someone like that, put this song on the first mixtape you give them, it’ll seal the deal for sure.
The EP ends with the eponymous “Sanctuary”, which closes out the journey began back with “Church”. “I’ve come a long, long way for this”, they sing in the song’s bridge, and coming from a song about admitting sins to this, one can truly see the line being drawn from hell to heaven, all in the arms of another. The song is quite literally a “Thank you for your sanctuary” kind of song, and the sisters finally get their “redemption” by finding the one person who can be their safe haven.
This body of music is one concise love letter to a person who, though flawed in their own ways, brings unmeasurable joy and “sanctuary” to the one they’re with. And it really, really works well. I would even go so far as to call this a concept EP (if that’s even a thing?) about the course of one relationship.
So, there you go. Five stars, duh. (Release an album next!)