The only documented account of me sleepwalking came at age six when my grandmother awoke to find me headed out the front door of her house. As she told it, I had carefully folded my bedspread and draped it over my arm like a cartoon butler. When she questioned me in my somnambulant state, I insisted I was going fishing and implored her to let me leave. Eventually, she coaxed me back into bed, and in the morning, she regaled the rest of the family with the tale of my nocturnal shenanigans. I laughed along, but the image beguiled my young mind for years to come. If I could wrangle a full-sized bedspread into a perfectly-folded napkin while sleeping, what else was I capable of fully awake?
Noah Deemer’s debut album, The Sleepwalker, seeks to access that deeper consciousness, mining the mind’s riches for hidden capabilities. Formerly associated with the Toddlers, Gross Ghost, and other groups in the Chapel Hill art-pop scene, Deemer is now based in New York. The Sleepwalker was written throughout 2018 and 2019 and recorded alone in a cabin in North Carolina. The album had a soft debut in the autumn of 2021 and was then remastered by Sarah Register (Lou Reed, U.S. Girls, Protomartyr) and self-released this May.
Sleepwalking is often used as a trope for passively moving through one’s life, numb and unaware. To call the songs on The Sleepwalker “dreamy”, however, would be to reach for the obvious and unoriginal descriptor. The word suggests a woozy weightlessness that, while apt, doesn’t fully capture the ineffable quality of a dream-like state. Deemer’s songs are dreamy in the way that dreams defy physics. The ones in which the dreamer discovers secret rooms, works out solutions to the day’s dilemmas, or in which time refuses to follow the clock.
The lead-off track, “Modern Ruins”, seems to start in the middle, sounding as though it was already in progress before the volume was turned up. It’s as if the tune were bubbling underneath the listener’s consciousness before surfacing, fully formed. At first, “Modern Ruins” sounds like a carefree jingle or incidental movie music. Its cheerful motif is then repeated with a fuzzed-out guitar in a minor progression, which turns the refrain from warm to menacing. It then returns to the original bop, with Deemer humming along. It’s as though Deemer, and by extension, the listener, is pushing negative thoughts away. The musical shift reflects our collective tendency to dissociate and deflect in the face of imminent climate disaster and societal demise.
The Sleepwalker‘s songs were influenced by a course of hypnosis Deemer undertook, with some of the album’s lyrics stemming from induced trance states he experienced during the sessions. Hypnosis is often portrayed in movies as a means of control, a way to get the subject to do or say something they would otherwise conceal. For Deemer, however, it was a way of unearthing deeper emotions: hypnosis as a healing modality rather than a party trick.
“Lay Your Hands” is another dreamy and off-kilter song. Schmaltzy saxophone and an analog drum pattern undergird a vocal that alternates between Low-era David Bowie and a lonely, yearning wail. The desire for connection is palpable.
Few of the songs on The Sleepwalker follow a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure. Most of the lyrics come across as free-associated pastiche, but they ultimately convey meaning. The title track simply incants the word “sleepwalker” over a hypnotic vibraphone riff. As a result, the song ultimately becomes what it’s about.
On “Please Life”, darkly impressionistic lyrics couple with post-punk dissonance under a petulant vocal. Stir in a frenetic electric guitar and anthemic chorus, and you get a punk song wrapped inside a dream-pop song. “Outlaw” is the outlier, lyrically. Its surreal narrative could be recited by a character in a David Lynch movie if Lynch made westerns scored by a tripped-out Ennio Morricone.
The songs on The Sleepwalker take a while to reveal their hidden depths. Nevertheless, I found myself humming tracks from the album throughout the day. They would pop into my head randomly, as though I recalled snippets of the previous night’s dream. A dream that, upon waking, feels all too real.