Sleep is big business: in 2012, Time magazine estimated the sleep industry—everything from mattresses and high-tech pillows to homeopathic remedies and hardcore pharmaceuticals—at $32 billion. Enter Sleeping Tapes, a remarkable recording made by the actor Jeff Bridges and the composer Keefus Ciancia, the creator of the music for "True Detective" and "Nashville". On its surface, Sleeping Tapes is pitched as a sleep aid. On a website accompanying the project, Bridges writes, "The world is filled with too many restless people in need of rest—that's why I filled my sleeping tapes with intriguing sounds, noises and other things to help you get a good night's rest."
At first, the sleep-aid tag seems about right. The album begins with downy swirls of tone—Tibetan prayer bowls, maybe, or pitched-down whirly tubes—overlaid with Bridges' gravelly baritone, as he mutters absent-mindedly, and hypnotically, about the project. "Sleeping tapes! Ha. I love that idea, and all that it implies, you know? Sleeping tapes." It's all a little bit moremeta than your average melatonin capsule, but it's not hard to see how Bridges' voice, steeped as it is in his whole affable/avuncular shtick, would make a profoundly relaxing naptime companion. And who knows, maybe those meta aspects could themselves lend to the attainment of more vivid dreams, sort of like the dream-within-a-dream hijinks of The Science of Sleep. In the background, shimmering drones and faraway pianos carry a whiff of the "Haunted Ballroom" fantasias of James Kirby's Caretaker project, or Klimek's Music to Fall Asleep; elsewhere, the clatter of found sounds, paired with Bridges' muttering, bring to mind Tom Waits' "The Ocean Doesn't Want Me Today".
But Sleeping Tapes is so much more than it appears to be at first glance. (Among other things, it's a fundraiser for the No Kid Hungry campaign, for which Bridges serves as a long-time spokesperson.) In fact, and perhaps not surprisingly, Bridges proves such a captivating presence that it's obvious that sleep is hardly the issue here. After a few tracks of figurative throat-clearing—and literal throat-clearing, which, of course, given the throat involved, sounds usually sumptuous—the album shifts into higher and higher surrealistic gears. There's a humming exercise, and then a segment recorded on a playground, with Bridges in full-on granddad mode; there are slowly tolling bells and THX-worthy strings. Before the 43-minute album is finished, we'll have taken an 11-minute walking tour of Temescal Canyon, "going for a walk like two old friends on a Sunday," a bit that feels a little like Mr. Rogers updated for the legal-weed era. Along the way, Bridges spooks a stray dog, finds an abandoned office chair, and mistakes a crow for a hawk. "It's majestic, though, isn't it?" he says, eternally upbeat. "Makes you wish you had feathers, huh? If you want, we could pretend to be crows."
And things get stranger, too. In "The Hen", backwards jazz licks flicker as Bridges tells the story of a tenor player known for carrying around plastic eggs of Silly Putty in his pockets."Ikea" is a minute-long riff on a space cemetery, or "spacemetery," that's as disorienting as any of the blackout scenes in The Big Lebowski. There's even a moment of comparative gravity, which, given the low-key gonzo vibes of the rest of the record, only makes it seem that much more unhinged. A poem called "The Raven"—not Poe's—it features the sound of rain and vivid Foley thunderclaps, and it suggests an unexpected kinship between Sleeping Tapes and The Transformed Man, William Shatner's 1968 album of dramatic readings and spoken-word.
Shatner's album was so over-the-top that many listeners couldn't decide if the "Star Trek" icon was really being serious, or if it was all a tongue-in-cheek exercise in thespian excess. Bridges, in contrast, remains in character the whole way through—even if part of that character involves frequently breaking the fourth wall to address us, his listeners, whom he regards with obvious fondness. We learn that he needs to get up to use the bathroom once or twice in the night if he drinks water before bed, but that's OK, because jeez, look how beautiful the full moon is; we learn that he's unfailingly chipper as a morning person; we even learn that he likes the sound of the toilet bowl filling, which he shares at the album's close over a bubbling aquatic crescendo. "The pitch rises, you know, as it gets to the top of the tank, you get that little gurgle at the end—" he muses, trailing off. "Anyway, what I was going to say, maybe we've reached the end of this album. And you're not asleep yet! Well, what the hell, fire the thing up again!" Before he goes, he leaves us with his No Kid Hungry pitch, trailing off into the mumbled mantra, "We're all in this together; we're all in this together." His warm-hearted spirit—his evident joy at just being alive—is infectious. Way beyond sleep aids, you get the sense that Bridges would be a hell of a life coach. The Dude abides.