Ian Wayne
Photo: Courtesy of Ruination Record Co.

Ian Wayne Combines Gorgeous Melodies with Experimental Touches on ‘I Can’t Sleep’

The third solo album, I Can’t Sleep, from Ian Wayne is a low-key masterpiece that embraces classic pop with plenty of odd, disarming musical gestures.

I Can't Sleep
Ian Wayne
Ruination Record Co.
18 November 2022

It’s one thing to take a new approach to artistic inspiration; it’s something else entirely when an album is something of a do-over of a previous release. While Ian Wayne‘s second record, 2020’s Risking Illness, was inspired by personal grief, the follow-up, I Can’t Sleep, is both a more lush, dense musical approach, as well as something of a reimagining of a work he released several years ago.

Under the moniker Cereal, the first iteration of I Can’t Sleep was released in 2016. While several of the elements of that original record remain, what Wayne has done this time seems more coherent and mature. The Cereal project – dubbed in the press materials as “an ambitious one-man Ableton experiment”, referring to the music software program – has been given new life, thanks partly to generous outside contributions. Co-producers Nate Mendelssohn and Katie Von Schleicher are on hand, as well as Carmen Q. Rothwell, Shahzad Ismaily, Jason Burger, and Nico Hedley. These are longtime collaborators of Wayne’s, many of them Ruination Record Co. labelmates, and their appearance on I Can’t Sleep is vital to the album’s artistic success.

I Can’t Sleep is essentially composed of five songs, all preceded by individual musical preambles (indicated in roman numerals I through V). These opening snippets express Wayne’s love of complementing his sophisticated pop/folk compositions with disarming, often atonal episodes. “I” opens the album with a strange bit of ambience; piano, guitar, bass, and field recordings stumble over themselves as if waking from a nap. The first song proper, “Curl”, incorporates an aching, trepidatious Michael Stipe-ish vocal delivery over cyclical guitar riffs and light, snare-heavy drumming before crashing into odd, pastoral neo-psychedelic folk. The overall feel is an odd bit of muted musical ambition. It never seems to get intrusive or overbearing, but there are multiple layers at work.

Meanwhile, “Being Displaced” clicks into easy electric guitar riffing, which, when combined with Wayne’s unusual, robotic vocal cadences, comes off as a contemporary, singer-songwriter-friendly take on Krautrock. It creates a moody and oddly droning atmosphere, but ultimately a peaceful and reflective one. The warm, acoustic space that “Molloy” occupies brings to mind the sparse but deep vibe of Ruination labelmate Dan Knishkowy’s Adeline Hotel project. Wayne’s spoken word lyrics provoke an intimacy that initially seems disarming until the listener warms up to the narration. Named after a Samuel Beckett novel, the track unfolds with Wayne’s lyrics representing something of an unvarnished inner monologue. “When at last I did fall, I awoke,” Wayne says near the song’s beginning and ends the track with the repeated mantra, “I doesn’t really matter where I’ve been,” giving the song a dreamy, desultory feel.

The subtle bounce of “Hallway of 50 Bridge Stilts” brings a lighter, catchier air to the album, as the drums provide an easy shuffle beat and Wayne’s vocals evoke the emotional tenor of Jackson Browne and the exotic approach to pop songcraft recalls Paul Simon at his most musically adventurous. Instrumental starts and stops prevent the song from delving into complacency, giving added gravitas to the lyrics: “On the highway above / There is a steady stream / People yelling, voices raised / Each one fears all unknowing / All unclear the source of the slowing.” Wayne’s words are unique and darkly poetic, and when the music levels dip – as they do at certain points of this song – their beauty comes even more clearly into focus.

Despite all the musical knottiness that precedes it, the closing track on I Can’t Sleep – the eloquent “My Heart” – embodies a gentle simplicity with whimsical, jazzy musical gestures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Harry Nilsson album. The lyrics contradict this as a sort of nightmarish fairy tale: “My hair is my arms / Cut off my hair, and so I cut off my arms / My arms are my heart / Cut off my hair, and so I cut off my heart.” On it goes until it pivots into an odd, reverb-soaked coda.

Ian Wayne has proven in the past that he’s a top-shelf songwriter and adventurous musician who can straddle lines between sophisticated pop and deep avant-garde. I Can’t Sleep sees him moving further into that type of ambition, allowing us – to paraphrase one of his lyrics – to sort through the cacophony in his mind.

RATING 8 / 10