Review Summary: The story continues
Four years since the band's last album Trouble Will Find Me, we see that the trouble has found them, and has morphed into a Beast.
Harking back to the album cover for Boxer, which saw a black and white photo of the band playing at their producer's wedding, the cover of Sleep Well Beast features a monochrome photo of the band in the studio superimposed over a chalet style structure. The wintry, claustrophobic imagery is embodied within the album itself. Immediately, the opening track Nobody Else Will Be There begins with clodding drumbeats that sound like the footsteps of a beaten man, 'Can you remind me the building you live in, I'm on my way' implores Berninger. The question remains unanswered, and the heavy footsteps trudge on into a chorus of 'Nobody else will be there then'.
Introduced by the band in promo interviews as a break-up album, all of the songs tackle the central theme head on with little space for respite. 'I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you, I'll still destroy you' declares Berninger on I'll Still Destroy You, as if wary the listener might have permitted more optimistic thoughts to interject in the interim. While the second single Guilty Party has the highly effective refrain 'I say your name, I say I'm sorry'. The sorry lingers on in the listener's imagination, as if the singer is apologising for his thoughts, his motives, his very existence.
The other common emotion apart from self pity and hurt in a break-up scenario is self defiance and shifting the blame onto the other person, and this is shown in the more energetic songs found here. On Day I Die Berninger spits out 'I don't need you, I don't need you, Besides I barely ever see you anymore'. While on The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness the singer warns 'Maybe I listen more than you think, I can tell that somebody sold you.'
Ultimately the anger and the push-back fades back into resignation. On the final track Sleep Well Beast, Berninger's voice is stripped back to a dry croaking narration. 'Go back to sleep, let me drive, let me think, let me figure it out; How to get us back to the place where we were when we first went out' calls out the narrator, before deciding 'I'll still destroy you some day, sleep well beast, you as well beast'.
The metaphorical Beast that the album describes is much the same as the one The National's previous three albums have been concerned with. Matt Berninger's lyrics and the sombre compositions of the Dessner brothers has been on a continuous journey to bring to life an amalgam of a F Scott Fitzgerald character - an erudite, morose, well-heeled man who seems intent on narrating his own romantic destruction. Sleep Well Beast sees this character magnified and pushed to its logical next level, in the form of a coherent concept album. The increased use of synths and syndicated drums shows the band's sound absorbing the zeitgeist of James Blake style downtempo electro.
This, alongside Boxer, is perhaps the soul of The National laid bare. They are a band for the over-educated and neurotic, those keen to analyse and define every chapter of their life, every emotion, every landmark moment. Extrapolating further, The Beast of Berninger's mind is really the post-Freudian Western world - we are self obsessed and determined to find meaning through love in a religion-free culture. We will never be rid of this Beast, we can only implore it to occasionally rest and sleep.