Review Summary: Like watching someone slowly break down and cry, without knowing the reason
Listening to “Nobody Else Will Be There”, the opener to Sleep Well Beast
, is like watching someone slowly break down and cry, without knowing the reason. There are hints in the lyrics (“why are we still out here, holding our coats"/we look like children”) or the ominous guitar loops – but really, it comes down to Matt’s performance, even more vulnerable and intimate than usual. This extends to the production, as for the first time since Boxer, there’s barely any reverb tail on Matt’s voice, and the low end has returned. It leaves room for the ghostly strings to stand out, a detail that would amount to a self-conscious easter egg on previous albums taking center stage. Rather than just layering things on top of each other, there’s a preciseness to the production on this song, and on most of the album, that results in some of the band’s best work.
Working with longtime collaborator and mixing engineer Peter Katis (whose absence was felt on the mostly Craig Silvey-mixed Trouble Will Find Me), there is more space to the production than there has been in quite literally a decade. One of the issues most common with Trouble Will Find Me is how it felt too content at times to just be “another National album.” If that was a valid criticism there, it’s less so here – this is as frantic as they’ve ever been musically. Malfunctioning synths fly around the mix, even in ballads like “Born to Beg” and “Empire Line”. In a lot of ways, between the guitar solos of the “Turtleneck” and lead single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, it’s the National sending themselves up. They want something different" We’ll give them different!
The scattered, glitch-y orchestra that ends "Dark Side of the Gym" is the ultimate example of the National winking musically, not just lyrically (though the reference to “Val Jester” in “Day I Die” is much appreciated). Previous songs would leave it unaltered, but in the heavily edited form, that coda becomes a majestic, breathtaking sh*tpost. In the best possible way, of course.
Similarly, the final minute of “I’ll Still Destroy You” takes the beauty of the preceding four minutes and distorts it like a horrifying post-punk Disney score. It's a testament to the band's skills that nothing ever gets too overwhelming, though. Even as Peter Katis recently discussed how he likes the effect of a ‘big ball of music' when mixing an album, this music ball never becomes as dense as the one on High Violet
. Yet that album's bonus track "Sin-Eaters" was perhaps the biggest hint to what the band would do seven years later.
Those sonics serve the lyrical themes of the record well, which, while the album began production well before last year’s election, is still informed by the chaos and paranoia of this current era. It would be easy to indulge in over-the-top personal sadness as escapism from the very real horrors of everyday news, but rather than continuing further down that path, the National decide to face the world head-on. “Walk It Back” may start awkward and personal (“Until everything is less insane, I’m mixing weed with wine/forget it, nothing I change changes anything”), but gradually expands its scope, capturing a quote attributed to Bush advisor Karl Rove in its orbit.
While the article containing the quote was published in 2004, the song deliberately uses Christmas 2007 as its time. That year is when Boxer came out, and that’s when the Bush presidency was winding down, but the key phrase in that speech is not just “reality-based community” but “we're an empire
now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” The Fake Empire may have returned, but the National knows it’s nothing new.
The aforementioned “Turtleneck” and “I’ll Still Destroy You” both deal with attempting to live in spite of the increasingly worrisome notifications any given news app may deliver. “Turtleneck” is easily the funniest song on the album, fitting for an era when a man retroactively christened “Mr. November” was replaced with “another man in ***ty suits”. It gets better when the chorus deadpans “hide your backbone, shrug your shoulders", attacking those who 'don't get into that kind of stuff'.
“I’ll Still Destroy You” depicts someone getting lost in nostalgia and failing to cope or even have an opinion with regards to politics. (Side note; an early draft of the song replaced “I have helpless ventures/bad taste in liquids” with “bad taste in memories”, which is somehow even better.) This song both supports and condemns escapism, but by the end of the album, it’s clear what Matt thinks of ignoring the news altogether. In a brilliant move, the title track focuses on raising a child in the era of 45, suggesting that the sort of denial depicted on Sleep Well Beast
will only result in more pain when that kid realizes what was happening in that era.
The only real complaint, then, is that some moments feel underdone; where “Walk It Back” has a soaring ending live, on record it moseys away in a surprisingly sloppy fashion. On the otherwise stellar Carin at the Liquor Store, the wailing guitar could feel bigger; not to the point of something like Strand of Oaks’ “Shut In”, but enough to compete with the experimentation and intensity of everything else. Meanwhile, “Empire Line” is mostly fantastic, but could use the punch that powers “System” and “Turtleneck.” These are minor complaints; all three songs are still amazing, but on an album when nearly everything has clearly been fine-tuned to perfection, even the most miniscule of flaws stand out.
(There are also moments where the sequencing feels off; why put the six-minute ballad “Walk it Back” between the two singles")
The one issue left is where they’re supposed to go from here. Do they get even more electronic" Do they go on an LCD-style hiatus" Do they release that second album of leftovers from this record" Who knows. It’s easy to pick apart every narrative they put forward, or even every song on this album to its individual components. Yet to borrow a quote from Peter Silberman of the Antlers, the National’s lyrics are “a piece of another person’s life that helps yours make sense.” And Sleep Well Beast
is the sound of that someone more lost than ever, in a buggy, hazy soundscape and lyrical mindset. So it won’t help someone’s life make more sense, but it will at least make that same person feel less alone in dealing with a time when the personal has never been more political.