Review Summary: See ya later Alligator
1: A Brief History of The National
One of the great things about what I retroactively assess as The National’s “trilogy” – Alligator, Boxer, High Violet – was that literally any lyric, pithy or poignant or, more often, both, would have served well as an introductory by-line; a cutting from the epic ode would fit snugly and adroitly in that little box up there, introducing the album. The trilogy, which I consider a contiguous entity, charted the perils and joys and panic of *growing up*, a bildungsroman for the post-harry-potter pre-hunger-games generation. In that sense I find them most comparable to The Dismemberment Plan, a band I believe they owe more to than the frequently cited Tindersticks; gaining maturity was more complex than coming to prefer ready salted chips, choosing to stay in with a book over going out to the pub, feeling literally crushed if you don’t get your mandated seven hours rest. Not that the minutiae wasn’t covered in passing, but The National have always focalised the epic; the indomitable energy of Alligator, tempered by fears of imposter syndrome, the more resigned, wary and wearied Boxer and the final, triumphant, “you’ve made it in spite of it all” of High Violet.
So The National were, are, my band, they’re your band, the first to capture your sorrow, your increasing disconnect with a past you thought formative, the irreparable loss that comes as a condition, and not a possibility, of adulthood; but they knew, like you did, that the experience was harrowing but thrilling, exhilarating, liberating even; they captured the yin and the yang, the thesis and antithesis, and the synthesis they presented felt wondrous and, well, real. I remember drinking cheap cider in my first year of university listening to All the Wine with a friend, one headphone each, as was the habit; I introduced them to my friends at my hall of residence, screamed inebriated along to Mr November, “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders”, and the woman whose room we were using burst into tears, huge, wracking sobs. That was the night she confessed that she used to be addicted to meth, before she came to university, and Mr November reminded her of how she felt using it. We all hugged her and told her that we didn’t care, and we didn’t, and indeed I have never known a braver, more kind woman.
The National was my band, her band, everyone’s band.
Then Trouble Will Find Me happened, their first album that severed the conterminous link between their discography, and suddenly in lieu of pithy lyrics, the emphasis was on subtle musical textures. Directness was supplanted by nuance. To wit, I submit: the gorgeous lilting upstrummed chord at about the two minute mark of Hard to Find, the pulse of “Fireproof”, the barely perceptible Eno-esque ambiance lurking beneath the surface of “I Need my Girl”. It was polarizing, but it was always going to be; the trilogy was completed, and The National were never content to don capes and run victory laps, or regurgitate old material. This was new, more subtle Indie Rock with greater experimentation, that took longer to parse and analyse and get a grip on; time has proved it a worthwhile venture, but my elephant’s memory recalls the snark and dismissal which accompanied it upon its initial release. Critical and commercial trouble did find The National, but more concerning was how much it felt like a swansong; for a band so renowned for their vicinal streak, even if only subconsciously, where were they going to go after the statement of that streak’s dissolution"
2. Sleep Well Beast
Here. An album that doubles down on the subtleties of production and musical flourish that Trouble Will Find Me teased at and often seems composed exclusively of such moments. So subtle are they, in fact, that on my first and second listens I didn’t perceive them; while I liked the album, I feared that this was the first time the pejorative U2 comparisons felt apt, not mean-spirited, that it was a muddle, that it didn’t engage. I was wrong, of course, but I offer two things in my defence: the leaked version paled in comparison to the real deal, which I clutch to my breasts now with the fervency of a matron clutching her pearls upon hearing the f-word, obfuscating the ravishing, gliding production work on the album, as well as the fact that Bryce Dessner’s ingenious guitar and electronic work, augured on Planetarium, means he replaced drummer Bryan Devendorf as MVP on the album (though it’s a close-run thing; the post-punk/jazz fusion drumming interplay of Walk it Back and his percussive work on I’ll Still Destroy You are intricate and powerful). I also impudently state that this is the first The National album, for me, that was a grower, and my expectations of immediate gratification meant I missed the signs that this was going to be a grower of considerable girth and length.
The experimentation on this album is fore-grounded, as the band make use of haunting vocal loops, repeated lyrics recontextualised in different songs, horn and orchestral sections that don’t compliment the music but instead offer a counterpoint, even a spoken-word field-recording in “Walk it Back”, dissonant guitar noodling in lieu of resolution on the title track (possibly one of The National’s finest tracks in the band’s two decade long existence). There are conventional pleasures to savour – the gliding guitar work in Guilty Party, the simply lovely Carin at the Liquor Store, the humour of the brilliantly-entitled Dark Side of the Gym, but other songs – the slow, meandering unspooling of Empire Lines and I’ll Still Destroy You into an emotional height the band hadn’t reached since, well, England, don’t exactly scream immediacy. Even the tracklisting does its utmost to challenge the listener, as the album veers, sidles and foreshadows in a way that doesn’t make cohesive sense until about the 5th listen, and even then could have used some editing. E.G.
3. A great album, tweaked (for Lewis and Rowan)
The album I wish I was reviewing is one easily fabricated. For this next part, you’ll have to work with me: grab your copy of Sleep Well Beast in whichever format available. Put the album on repeat and click on the second track, "Day I Die." Breathe easy; this gets good. Press play.
The opening track, “Nobody Else Will Be There”, is beautiful, certainly, a piano-lilted ballad with mumbled, hopeless lyrics, but would not Day I Die have been a more judicious choice, with it’s anthemic guitar lick and statement of intent" Would not Nobody Else Will Be There have worked better as a tonal and thematic resolution to Sleep Well Beast, not to mention plot: Sleep Well Beast finds our protagonist drinking gin on his lonesome in a derelict stairwell, and inviting a long-suffering partner along, pleading with her to join him as they return to safety – safety with the caveat of a fracture in a relationship, which is to say ersatz safety – been more haunting, more tragic, more powerful" A low-key, shimmering piano ballad in the vein of Gospel, rather than the rather abrupt experimentation of Sleep Well Beast"
And while the electronica epic of Walk It Back (has Berninger ever sounded so scared as he does when he utters “I don’t want to *** it up”") serves as a harbinger of the meandering, reflective second half, it’s a bit of cleverness that comes at the cost of interrupting Day I Die’s easy, natural transition into The System, but more than that the swell of an album that begins in familiar, albeit experimental-tinged territory and gradually gets weirder and more introspective as it goes along" Likewise, I can see “Born to Beg” after Carin at the Liquor Store, but not sandwiched between The System and Turtleneck, the latter a song so terrible that it taints the rather lovely song that comes before it.
And my god, Turtleneck; a charitable interpretation would be that it’s execrableness is due to its utter incongruousness with the rest of the album, but even judged alone it’s a mess, with egregious lyrics and instrumentation delivered by a man who is no longer capable of the howls of “Mr. November” or “Squalour Victoria”. Grab a pair of scissors and neatly excise it from the tracklisting, as I have, and reap the pleasures of an album refined by a long-time listener, first-time reviewer.
4. The National and the Black Dog
Berninger these days seems more comfortable delivering his lyrical lines a la Leonard Cohen, a baritone mumble, alcohol-splashed and with genuine gravitas that can only come from experience of suffering, or at least prolonged bouts of despondence. “I’m at a loss I’m at a loss I’m losing grip the fabric’s ripped”, he intones anhedonically, before offering the empty promise “I’ll tell you about it sometime”. The prevalent interpretation is that his implied audience is a partner, but I think, like Jim O’Rourke’s Insignificance, the song makes it clear that the implied audience of the album is himself, a confused and sometimes deranged monologue, filled with self-doubt if not self-loathing, charting a depressive state: the hypersomnia (the line “sleep well beast” carries a particularly troubling connotation, if my interpretation is correct), the agoraphobes only comfort (“goodbye’s always take half an hour / why can’t we just go home / nobody else will be there then”), the anxiety of even basic human interactions (“don’t *** it up” as self-remonstration) all, to my ears, are lines self-directed, shamed but unable to change his scenario because of a warped brain chemistry bequeathed possible generations ago. As someone who has suffered prolonged bouts of agoraphobia, the line “goodbyes always take half an hour” is enough to make me gasp with its specificity to my own experience. Whether this is evidence of The National using their knack to grasp something universal in the hyperspecific or whether it really is more personal and intimate than previous bon mots, you’ll have to decide; all I know is I was floored by it, and more than a little moved.
5. The National overcoming the Black Dog
Or is it about overcoming mental illness" When he says “sleep well beast” is in indicative of him putting his malaise to bed, courtesy of inner strength and the support of a partner" When he says “I will destroy you” is he talking about himself or his demons" More troubling: are they one in the same" I think that is what makes this album so different to the rest of their oeuvre; an abstruse ambiguity that defies easy answers and instead begs for interpretation, each persons inevitably unique. I.e. if Trouble Will Find Me is Romanticism, Sleep Well Beast is their modernist, garbled, user-specific statement.
6. Who cares the music is good.
A couple of other notes: the eerie vocal loops that opens several tracks, the afore-mentioned subtle, pitch perfect guitar contrapunctual guitar work, the glissando, the complimentary drums, the melodies and lyrics and rhythms haven’t been lost; instead, we’ve gained electronics and avant-garde flourishes to add to The National’s extensive bag of tricks. Understated, perhaps, auto-piloty at first glance, this is an album that, like a particularly convoluted Russian Doll, unpacks layers and layers with repeated listens. I’m doubtful it will top Boxer in my estimation, but I can see, in a couple of listens, it standing proudly on par with Trouble Will Find Me. As for you, you’ll have to draw your own conclusions; with an album this personal and intimate, mileage will vary.
But what I love about The National, and always will, is their honesty. Sleep Well Beast speaks so many truths and captures so much of life that it manages to resonate within me like little else. They do it in such a down-to-earth, accessible style, despite adjectives like ‘complex’ and ‘experimental’ being apposite. That they pull it off so adeptly is nothing short of astounding. Sleep Well Beast isn’t a beautifully rendered depiction of an “uninnocent, inelegant fall into… the lives of adults” – it’s a confused step into uncharted territory, whose hesitancy is its greatest virtue. And the angels of that song might not want to watch, sure—but it’d ***-sure be worth their while to listen.