Review Summary: The National return with a sprawling and adventurous new album that holds up to their legendary career.
The National’s four-album run beginning with Alligator
and ending with Trouble Will Find Me
represent a distinct era for the band. Lyrical themes were clever, dark, cryptic, and sometimes humorous. It was clear however that each album cycle generally represented times in Matt Berninger’s life (and perhaps of the other band members) from early twenties to older ages. This general timeline is resumed in Sleep Well Beast
. The music however evolves into new sounds while lyrics traverse the ups and downs of married life.
Berninger’s marriage that Sleep Well Beast
explores is one that is fortunately still thriving. This reality casts a hopeful light on the message of Sleep Well Beast
, which is that there is no universal answer to our relationships; Berninger is just sharing his experiences in a relatable manner, communicating wisdom by tapping into listeners’ feelings and personal experiences. Berninger’s more direct lyrics occupy an abstract space alongside the more experimental musical direction. Whether this approach is better than the previous or not is simply a matter of opinion; it’s just different. Sleep Well Beast
sees The National flourish with candid lyrics and diverse song craft, embodying the band’s continuing evolution and life’s constant change.
“Nobody Else Will Be There” begins Sleep Well Beast
on an effective, melancholic note, also signifying changes in instrumentation and texture. A repeating piano line acts as the focal melody, while a gentle electronic rhythm keeps tempo. Various sound effects and echoes add layers and color, also appearing in many of the other tracks. Most of the album’s first half is more upbeat however, with a straightforward rock-oriented sound that they haven’t recently indulged much in. "Day I Die" is a fast-paced, driving track that feels at home in The National catalogue despite how rarely they indulge in its style. There are even guitar solos that appear, working surprisingly well in “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and one of the band’s most fast-paced songs to date, “Turtleneck.”
Longer tracks see the band uninhibited and experimenting frequently. The second half of Sleep Well Beast
is where most of them are found. “Sleep Well Beast” is a cyclical song, with core melodies and rhythms looping in order to allow all manner of beautiful sounds and harmonies to be conjured throughout. “Empire Line” resembles “Tangle Formations” by post-rock band Explosions in the Sky, combining driving percussion with piano, guitars, and violins rising and falling in and out of the mix.
The wide, spacious production is immaculate, allowing for an intimate blend of sounds that also feel grand and expansive. This enables the best song on the album, “I’ll Still Destroy You,” to harness its wild dynamics gloriously. Busy electronics and staccato’d string playing dance together, hurtling towards a powerful crescendo that recalls fan favorite “England” from High Violet
. Much of Sleep Well Beast
is more reflective as well: gorgeous tracks like “Born to Beg” and “Dark Side of the Gym” exhibiting how effective The National can be at slower and more somber songwriting. The contrast between quieter songs and the more challenging, experimental moments never takes you out of the listening experience. The changes in mood from song to song are handled with finesse and care.
The National certainly aren’t afraid to take risks. The electronic elements add new dimensions and possibilities to each song. Despite the changes The National have undertaken, their brand of indie rock remains as impressive and fresh as their previous classics. Their musical world is one rife with unique insights and dark, detailed songwriting always able to emotionally connect and inspirit.