Review Summary: In media res..
By now, The National have solidified themselves as imperial presbyters of the kind of chamber-affected, hyper-civilized post-punk that has come to define latter-day East Coast emotional thrashings. They wield that hard-earned esteem in all the pertinent ways - building a studio in the lordly green of upstate NY, quarantining themselves away with whatever demons and depersonalizations haunt the middle-class mind nowadays, and for the first time, trying to zero in on the sort of unsettled, jarringly sluggish call-to-arms their music has been. It was always loud music made elegant and hushed. On Sleep Well Beast
, The National crack through the sheen of their own refinement, and introduce a little havoc to the proceedings.
The National being who they are, that havoc is a decidedly controlled affair, and given their penchant for sophistication, no matter how unhinged or electric they were going to make this, it was always going to ply closer to U2 bombast than the hazy unrest of Joy Division or The Sound. That lingering grandiosity is a tricky field to wade through, and when handled clumsily, it tends to undermine meaning rather than bolster it. Sleep Well Beast
isn’t immune to those pratfalls. First single “The System Only Dreams in Darkness,” “Walk It Back” and the Springsteen-esque “Born to Beg” hold all of the gracile aspects that have come to be The National’s calling cards, buried in swirling electronic effects and soaring guitar pitches. These busy ecosystems may touch on more immediate pleasure triggers than the band’s more patient pieces, but do little else as far as cloaking up the tepid song structures within. The doe-eyed radio sheen of “Day I Die” is another clipped moment. A more ragged, nasal vocal tone, and one would have a hard time telling it apart from whatever sparkly fodder Kings of Leon are trading in. The maimed pounce of “Turtleneck” in particular, is the starkest misstep on Beast
, and one of more effete moments in the band’s catalogue. These instants sag the middle of Beast
, a recess that even the delicately sorrowful “Empire Line” can’t salvage. None of it is empirically bad music………………............ and that’s about it.
The truly breathtaking moments of Sleep Well Beast
come wearing all the old familiar faces. The closing third of the album, from “Guilty Party” on, finds the band neck-deep in that inimitable wrenching elegance. Here, the synthetic/electric upheavals find their place with less strain, coming together into that patented grief with stylish ease. The shuffling art-drums and electro-glimmers of the title track in particular make for a small wonder, perhaps the most successful of The National’s new-old tack. Inscrutably patient, it ambles along on punch-drunk legs, the brain abuzz, staggering home after a sweat-sodden night out of nursing crisis, Berninger’s deadpan confessionals slicing through intermittently.
is neither hardened nor exquisite enough to upend the band’s past efforts. It’s a sturdy, reliable entry into their already-formidable body of work. And even if it doesn’t pick apart your heart quite so effortlessly, it’s enough to keep you poetically smothered in that beatific anguish just a little while longer.