It is 11.30pm on a Thursday and I have taken to my bed with my headphones on and an hour-long “sleep remix” of Post Malone’s multi-platinum 2019 hit Circles for company. As you’ve presumably guessed, the idea is that the remix is supposed to help me drift off to sleep: the vastly successful meditation app Calm has just launched a Sleep Remix Series of tracks by big pop artists – Post Malone, Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes and Katy Perry among them – as the latest addition to their huge library of sounds designed to send users off for the night.
If the author of Beerbongs & Bentleys – a man who has barbed wire tattooed across his forehead, and indeed the words “always tired” inked beneath his eyes – doesn’t seem the most obvious candidate for a job as a soothing bedtime accompanist, the arrival of Calm’s Sleep Remix Series isn’t entirely unexpected. For one thing, not since the chillout compilation boom of the early 2000s – when record stores shelves were groaning under the weight of collections featuring Röyksopp, Zero 7, Kinobe, Blue States, tracks from Moby’s album Play and a variety of other purveyors of gentle advert-soundtrack-friendly electronica – has music that wafts unobtrusively in the background been such a big deal.
YouTube is packed with videos titled Deep Focus: Music for Studying and Concentration or Instrumental Music for Working: hours and hours of unnamed and utterly nondescript-sounding ambient, deep house and acoustic instrumentals that exist in order to quietly unspool without you really noticing. Spotify is thick with playlists called things like Duvet Day, Soft Morning and License to Chill: you may remember the “fake artists” controversy of a couple of years back, where the streaming platform was accused of paying producers to churn out reams of relaxing instrumental music and using the results to pad out their playlists royalty-free, an accusation it hotly denied. While we’re on the subject of Spotify, there’s the longstanding argument that the algorithms the streaming service uses to come up with recommendations for users favour a homogenous mid-tempo sound that encourages passivity in the listener – nothing to startle you or incite you to hit fast-forward. Hence the rise of an entire genre, the floaty, unassuming, vaguely melancholy electronic singer-songwriter sound sarkily dubbed Spotifycore: background music by any other name.
In addition, meditation apps are currently huge business: in 2019, the Top 10 highest-grossing apps alone pulled in $195m in revenue, a 52% year-on-year increase – and that was before the Covid pandemic, with its associated impact on mental health. That’s a huge potential audience for musicians. In the past, Calm has stuck to tried-and-tested musical methods of relaxing you: tracks by long-term Brian Eno associates Laraaji and Bill Laswell as well as Tom Middleton (one half of lauded 90s ambient producers Global Communication) and shoegaze-adjacent artists Sigur Rós and Toro Y Moi; suitably chilled mixes by DJs including Deadmau5 and Diplo; bespoke stuff by people you’ve never heard of before called things like Astral Traveller, Unfolding Wonders and Dreamcatcher.
But, more than any of the other relaxation apps, Calm seems to have decided that celebrity is a lure – their bedtime stories are read by Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey and Kate Winslet among others – and that their audience might be the kind of people who would appreciate an hour-long ambient remix of Post Malone or Luis Fonsi. (Harry Styles’s appearance as a Calm bedtime story reader seems as predicated on his pin-up status than any soporific qualities his Cheshire tones might have: “fall asleep and fall in love with the dreamy voice of Harry Styles,” suggests the blurb accompanying his reading of something called Dream With Me.) Accordingly, it began gently shifting its musical output towards mainstream pop last year, issuing a series of “Calm Mixes” of tracks from 2020 albums by Ellie Goulding and Australian YouTubers-turned-pop-stars 5 Seconds of Summer - a neat way to promote new releases that Covid prevented the artists from touring in support of.
But Calm’s Sleep Remix Series obviously represent an upping of the ante. The 5 Seconds of Summer tracks bore almost no relation to the original versions: here, the whole point is that you recognise the artist, at least initially. Each of the tracks starts with a version of the song itself, stripped of its beats, drenched in reverb and echo, with drifting synthesisers or instruments associated with a “chilled-out” sound – acoustic guitar, piano – pushed to the fore.
It occasionally works really well – the remix of Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour lends it an appealingly hazy, drugged-out sheen, while the version of Katy Perry’s Double Rainbow is frankly a vast improvement on the original, giving the track a warm, Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter feel – although there are other examples that reveal the limitations to that approach. It doesn’t matter how much echo you put on Ariana Grande’s Breathin, it doesn’t sound particularly relaxing – she has the kind of powerful modern pop voice that’s designed to be in your face, and the song’s chorus nags whether or not the rhythm track is pared back. Likewise the emotive yearning of Luis Fonsi: it’s hard to feel chilled when there’s a bloke who sounds like he’s on the verge of tears in your headphones, drifting synthesiser accompaniment or not. Then, in every case, the song gradually dies away, leaving a wash of ambient sound that very, very slowly fades to silence.
Moreover, none of them worked, at least for me – I was still wide awake long after the song proper had finished. But, in fairness to Calm and the artists involved, that’s me. I’ve been a music journalist all my adult life. After 25 years of literally being paid to pay attention to music, I can’t stop myself paying attention to it, no matter how hard it tries to ramble on in the background. I find it hard to concentrate on much else while music is playing – there’s a panoply of burnt dinners in my past that attest to the danger of my trying to cook with the Sonos on – and I certainly can’t drift off to sleep: I’ve suffered from periodic bouts of insomnia since my late teens and I know from bitter experience that listening to music doesn’t help. In the interests of full disclosure, there have been rare occasions when I’ve nodded off with my headphones on, but frankly that only happens when I’m in such an advanced state of dissipation that I’d probably have fallen asleep while listening to someone cutting paving slabs with an angle grinder.
Tired, but stone-cold sober, the inevitable happens when I play the Sleep Remix version of Post Malone’s Circles. It sounds fine, its gauzy textures more appealing, to my ears at least, than the hit version. While it’s clearly more relaxing in tone than say, listening to Death Grips or Diamanda Galás or a happy hardcore compilation, it fails to do the trick: after 45 minutes, I’m still completely alert, still thinking about the music I’m listening to – which is now more or less just an echoing synth and vocal drone – rather than transported. I know it’s my fault, rather than that of Post Malone, or Calm. I turn it off, pick up a book, read it for half an hour and I’m out like a light.