Oftentimes, when a band says they’re trying to evolve as musicians and explore new things, it’s an omen of disappointment– shorthand for the fact that they’re going soft. Palm Reader’s fourth studio album, Sleepless, released 27 November 2020, shattered that narrative. Sleepless is radically different from past albums while still staying true to the kind of beautiful work that Palm Reader has been putting out since 2010. This album is a landscape and a feeling. It’s dreamy, dark, and heavy. You will willingly drown in it.
It opens with “Hold/Release,” a thick and drifting exploration of toxic masculinity. Josh McKeown’s vocals have an addictive texture to them. “Affected by the expectancy / whose opinions determine the course of the life you lead? / this can’t last / a hold with no release,” he shouts. Downcast and introspective, it introduces the listener to the kind of grandiose feel that runs through the entire album. It’s followed by “Stay Down,” a brutal track that would feel at home on Braille or Beside the Ones We Love. The fact that it fits here as well is proof that Palm Reader has far from abandoned their roots.
“Ending Cycle” is sadder, slower. McKeown wails. Guitars wail. I stopped breathing the first time I heard this song. It simmers with desperation, conveying visceral emotions without reverting to ugliness. If it didn’t have so much competition, I would say it’s one of the most gorgeous tracks on the album. Next up is “Willow,” which tells the story of a mother losing her child. It’s rhythmic and immersive. Powerful layers of sound ebb and flow throughout the track. As always, the craftsmanship of all the players is impossible to ignore.
At this point of the LP, you’re already saturated with a specific kind of hypnotic darkness. You’re definitely unprepared for the brooding masterpiece that is “A Bird and Its Feathers.” But, relentlessly, it comes. It begins with wrenching vocals and minimal instrumentation, slowly coalescing into a beautiful chaos. It’s a song for the end of the world. Six and a half minutes, powerful and churning, this track will leave you feeling like you’ve lived and died inside of it.
“Islay,” an instrumental with crackling guitars and a dose of eldritch reverb, is a chance to catch your breath. But you don’t have long before “False Thirst.” It starts simply enough, with a keyboard of all things. A musical choice with a bad name in my household– our long-held belief is that once you slap a piano in something, it’s automatically hopeless. “False Thirst,” however, flips that on its head. Josh McKeown starts in with a wrenching performance, and guitars spiral into oblivion. Just past the halfway mark, things slow down before exploding into a pocket of intensity. This song feels more like a place than a song. A season, maybe.
“Brink” shivers and warps and swells. If “False Thirst” is a season, “Brink” is a prayer to a god you’re no longer sure exists. “They beat the lies into you / blur the lines of truth / you found the brink / you’re close to it,” McKeown sings, dragging you into a beastly thicket of riffs. “A Love That Tethers” is less jagged, although still hard-hitting. Keening guitars accent another stunning round of vocals. It feels like the kind of track you would hear in the background of a film while the characters mourn.
It finishes with “Both Ends of the Rope.” The vocals lay just beneath a torrent of guitars before slowly overtaking them. A recurring riff woven throughout the second half of the album makes a final reappearance. It’s a breathtaking closing. “We picked apart the reasoning / pulling the thread at the seams of this / it seemed as though the end was creeping closer / we chose to make the most of it.”
One of the most powerful albums to come out of 2020, Sleepless is a testament to the talent and endurance of Palm Reader. It’s magnificent. Give it a spin.