The one and only time I’ve ever held personal stake in an eBay bidding war was when I wanted prints of an Aly & AJ photo shoot. I think I was around nine years old, and I think they were wearing shiny scarves. I won.
I still have my winnings under my bed in suburban Missouri. I framed them with such pride, and I took them down when I was ready to throw Harry Styles into the mix. I would never (and will never) throw the prints away, though, because in the same way that Joe Jonas will always make me swoon and Hilary Duff will always make me wear bootcut jeans, Aly & AJ will always feel like my big sisters. I absolutely adored them, and they were the first celebrities I legitimately idolized. They recorded music until 2007, when they took a decade-long hiatus. After a quick stint as 78violet, the sisters returned in 2017 as Aly & AJ with “Take Me,” the lead single from their EP Ten Years.
Now, just a couple years later, we get Sanctuary. My big sisters are all grown up, and this EP is even better than the last.
Ten Years was a glittery comeback that marked Aly & AJ as officially not-Disney anymore, but it felt restless in a way that Sanctuary has comfortably grown out of. There’s still love and there’s still loss, but the EP isn’t dizzy. Where Ten Years had something to prove, Sanctuary just wants to simmer. They’re not transitioning from teen “Cow Belles” to manic pixie dream-pop stars anymore. They’ve already done it.
“Church” is the perfect opening track because it wants just as much as it wallows. Wanting, wallowing, wanting, wallowing — they balance each other out in the dreamiest way. Every regretful moment of clarity (“For all the times I can’t reverse / For all the places where it hurts) comes with some hope for a soft place to land (“The middle of church”).
Doused in grace, the rest of the EP follows suit. Sanctuary finds a home in itself, and these sisters are wild in their willingness to give us a peek inside. “Don’t Go Changing” has that same Carly Rae Jepsen brand of ephemerality — a “Gimmie Love” kind of intoxicating emergency. They’re not asking for what they want, they’re telling us what happened once they got it: “You were just what I wanted / Slipping away, that feeling / Hurts me to watch you fading / Too good to be true, I knew it.” They plea, “Don’t go changing on me, babe,” after the fact. Pop music will break your heart if you let it.
They sing with a shimmering delicacy, so light you wouldn’t think anything of it. So you shimmer along. And then someone’s voice breaks and your hands drop and you’re cut bone-deep with some hazy shade of heartache. I was so ready to call “Star Maps” a “very OK” middle track, and then it hit me with the same force as the first two. It’s about scraping your knees until you stumble into magic and doing everything you can to stay there. “I’ll die for it,” they sing, and you get the sense that they already have.
Now, “Not Ready to Wake Up” is a very OK penultimate track. It’s overwhelmed by its own bliss, making it a strange bridge between the grief of “Star Maps” and the liberation of the final song, “Sanctuary.” It doesn’t quite split your heart, but it doesn’t try to sew you back together, either. The title track does.
“Sanctuary” is just self-aware enough to relish in its gratitude. This is the most grounding track on the EP — “Thank you / For your … sanctuary” — it’s so direct, and it’s the perfect goodbye. They know what it’s like to break and to bend and to be so taken by something that it does both to you, but now they’ve got both feet on the ground again. The title track makes Sanctuary as a whole feel like a return to form.
Sanctuary brought Aly & AJ back to their own bodies. They rode along the jagged edges of their own hindsight until it brought them home.