With its engaging compositions, impeccable vocal performances, and frequently exceptional production values, the long-awaited full-length album from Nina fulfills much of the promise shown on the singles and EPs that preceded it. Not every song is a hit, but there are more than enough successful entries to reward most synthwave fans, particularly those who are fond of the genre’s splinter direction into softer musical spaces.
In terms of style, Sleepwalking closely aligns with pillowy, romanticized form of synthwave music that’s become popular in the past few years, spearheaded by artists like FM-84, The Midnight, and Timecop1983. Like other releases in the style, Nina’s new album has little direct connection to music of the 1980s, but successfully captures the spirit of the era with a wistful, nostalgic evolution of synth-driven pop tunes. In addition to the notably soft instrumentation, the incorporation of modern mainstream touches to the songwriting, particularly in the vocal delivery, gives this type of popwave music a distinct character from the traditional sounds of outrun, and it succeeds in its efforts to generate a comfortable and soothing listening space.
In terms of quality, Nina’s debut frequently matches and even exceeds its contemporaries, dodging the self-pitying tone of The Midnight’s Nocturnal and some of the grating melodic hooks of Gunship’s only album, striking a tone that is accessible and relatable without being overly saccharine.
The idyllic nature of the album is perhaps best represented on the title track, which kicks off with a subtly compelling rhythm and cinematic synth tones that perfectly support Nina’s faultless vocals. Considering the relatively small percentage of synthwave music with vocals, and the even smaller percentage of music with professional, pitch-perfect delivery, Nina’s masterful performance is a breath of fresh air, like escaping a room packed with amateur vocalists warming up for their appearance on the televised talent show du jour. In contrast, Nina’s voice is effortlessly likable and unerringly precise, hitting the bullseye of every note. “Sleepwalking” is deceptively well written, and though its low-key approach is unlikely to grab serious attention on the first playthrough, repeated listens reveal the strength of its understated and immersive composition.
The title track is soon followed by the album’s crown jewel, “Purple Sun,” which is a treasure of melodic songwriting. Once again, Nina’s flawless vocal performance and inherently attractive voice put the music into a space that few synthwave tracks have ever reached, and its brilliantly shifting underlying melodies — alternately represented through piano, guitar, and synthesizer sections — provide the perfect canvas for the emotive vocals to work their magic. The fact the song was previously released in 2016 may hurt its appeal for those who have already worn it out on the Beyond Memory EP, though it somehow feels more valuable and compelling within the context of a complete album, and its high intrinsic value makes it worth revisiting.
However, “Purple Sun” is not the only highlight from the recording that will be familiar to listeners, as “Beyond Memory” and “One of Us” are similarly great tracks that appeared in advance of Sleepwalking. The fact that many of the best moments are not unique to this album potentially causes the recording to feel overexposed, though once again, the songs somehow feel newly compelling within their context on the LP, and the experience of playing them through in a group is significantly more satisfying than picking them off a handful of singles and EPs. “Beyond Memory” in particular benefits from its new environment, and the extended cut adds significant value and interest to its overall composition. While the vast majority of synthwave producers could benefit from cutting one or two minutes off all their songs, “Beyond Memory” actually improves from the added 90 seconds, with the extended intro adding invaluable immersion to the track.
Not all is roses and sunlit fields on Sleepwalking, however, and some of the weaker pieces feel surprisingly flat. “It Kills Me” not only lacks the melodic appeal of its neighbors, but is also missing their velvety sound production, instead coming across with a thin and hollow tone. “Empire of Love” and “Your Truth” similarly lack the inspired songwriting spark and production mastery of the best tracks, leaving them as pleasant but forgettable efforts. This disparity is no doubt a reflection of the three different producers who worked on the recording, and though the differences aren’t exactly glaring, they’re enough to swing the quality noticeably from one song to the next.
Still, of the 11 tracks, none are particularly disagreeable, and the listening experience ranges from mildly enjoyable to immensely rewarding, leaving the complete product with a high overall value. Sleepwalking is also commendably diverse, comfortably swinging from the midtempo pace of “Beyond Memory” to the ballad-like pulse of “Diamonds in the Rough” to the most authentically retro entry, the soft-rock-flavored “‘80s Girl.”
Those who have been eagerly awaiting Nina’s debut album will be happy with the release, even if some of its best songs are already familiar, while those who are new to Nina are likely to be surprised at how overlooked the artist is in comparison to similar creators. Sleepwalking deserves to be mentioned alongside the most prominent releases in the rapidly developing popwave style, and it deserves just as much success. The flawless vocals, frequently excellent production, and meaningful variety of music constitute a landmark album in synthwave’s continuing evolution.
Rating: 87 / 100 (Great)
Song Variety: 8
Click here for a full explanation of the grading scale.
Buy the Album: Bandcamp
Support Iron Skullet on Patreon for more reviews and articles on synthwave.