JUSTIN BERNASCONI – Sleeping Like A Maniac (Mountain King Music JAB3)

Sleeping Like A ManiacMelbourne based songwriter and guitarist Justin Bernasconi’s latest collection of tunes, Sleeping Like A Maniac, follows 2017’s Barefoot Wonderland in the exploration of Americana influences and painstaking self-reflection. Sleeping Like a Maniac is clearly the work of a man who is no stranger to darkness. What Bernasconi offers here is a COVID-era document in the most compelling sense in that, contradictory to the litany of albums and television programs which have emerged in recent months and have made a point to incorporate the idea of the pandemic itself into their respective narratives, Sleeping Like A Maniac is the sound of an artist turning the mirror on himself and taking stock of his own life and emotional state in a time which, by all accounts, it can be a struggle to be alive at all.

Things get underway with gorgeous fingerpicked arpeggios easing the listener into ‘Blank Page’, and Bernasconi makes no bones about getting down forthwith to the difficult conversations. The listener is faced with a man conflicted, steadfast in his own worldview yet painfully aware that, at this junction, he may very well be the villain in the story of the person for whom he cares most. ‘Blank Page’ is a solicitation of understanding in a situation wherein the parties involved are uncertain as to whether such grace is deserved. Leaning upon Bernasoni’s unrelenting bluegrass-infused fingerstyle picking, the album opener establishes a musical and lyrical motif which permeates the album. This is perhaps most apparent near the album’s end with ‘I’m Still Here’, a track which seems to serve almost as a continuation of an emotional exchange initiated with ‘Blank Page’. A haunting cello feature from Anita Hillman ties together the album opener exquisitely, effectively setting the tone for what is to come by way of her lone contribution.

It is clear that Sleeping Like A Maniac is pulling from a wide breadth of influences, with tracks such as ‘Lady In The Field’ and ‘Dancing Elephant’ echoing a Rubber Soul era Beatles aesthetic while maintaining the woodsy grit that berths the atmosphere of the collection as a whole. These explorations are further accentuated by Bernasconi’s sparse implementation of a backing band. Appearing only sporadically, the supporting musicians never detract focus from the vision of the primary artist, opting instead to adorn Sleeping Like A Maniac with splashes of color and texture which serve to augment the idea with which the listener is being presented. This effect is perhaps most effectively utilized in album standout ‘Flags Staked Upon This Hill’, a minor key rumination on guilt and the embrace of that which you know could very well be your demise. Erratic snare flourishes dancing on and off the double-time downbeat give the illusion of stumbling through a sprint, never quite able to retain your footing. Ben Franz’s Fender Precision Bass acts as the musical anchor which prevents the figurative train from leaving the tracks entirely.

Elsewhere Bernasconi wrestles with ideas that may be less effectively conveyed through the written word. This dynamic is heard on title track: an acoustic instrumental which highlights the juxtaposition of its namesake. The application of Bernasconi’s 7 string Martin grows increasingly volatile as the piece progresses, but rather than rely on the propulsion of a rhythm section, his acoustic guitar remains the sole voice throughout the number. This approach places emphasis on the sharp contrast, not only of ideas, but also of the convictions to which we often remain unwaveringly dedicated, convictions which oftentimes exist within direct opposition to one another; Sleeping Like A Maniac indeed.

The tension which remains prevalent throughout Sleeping Like A Maniac undergoes a brief respite in the form of ‘Bygone Blues’. The irony in the breeziest, most upbeat tune in the collection being a blues number is not lost. Album closer ‘Trigger Me’ is not entirely dissimilar in musical presentation, but very much retains the anxiety and uncertainty that permeate the preceding numbers. It is during these spots on Sleeping Like A Maniac that Bernasoni’s admiration for late songwriter Justin Townes Earle are most readily apparent, alluding to some of the lighter musical moments from Earle’s 2009 release Midnight At The Movies.

What Justin Bernasconi has crafted with Sleeping Like A Maniac is a crackling fusion of genres, some of which are not so far removed from one another, upon which he disassembles and reassembles his own psyche a dozen times over in search of answers at which he may or may not have ever arrived. The penultimate verse of the closing track offers a brief summation of the project’s modus operandi “Fears dissolve when I write the facts/Get this stuff outta my head/Before I get back into bed”. Sleeping Like A Maniac, much like its creator, is not only aware of its own contradictions, it knows that it is within those very contractions that the human element is perhaps most palpable.

Cameron Gunnoe

Artist’s website: https://www.justinbernasconi.com/

‘Flags Staked Upon This Hill’ – official video:

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