Review Summary: Rest Easy
The National are in many ways a success story without precedent in mainstream rock. Often compared to heavyweights such as Radiohead or R.E.M in terms of their career arc, really they bear little comparison. This is a band who broke through at the equivalent sort of ages yer Thom Yorkes and Michael Stipes had long established themselves as royalties millionaires, lest we forget. Try as I might to imagine The National transported to the late '80s or early '90s I just can't picture a band of, well, effectively 'middle class dads', being heavy-rotation pimped on MTV. Could these dudes have realistically commanded a legion of 16 year old mall rats decked out in black tees and left them hanging on their every interview utterance" The National as generation X festival headlining rabble rousers" It never would have happened.
So Matt and co are one of those rare and beautiful examples of a late blooming, slightly runty creature that not only survived but eventually flourished, thanks to the forgiving climate of early 21st century indiedom. By 2007 'music was just music' for the majority of young listeners; it was effectively free, you could stream ten songs by a band and have next to no knowledge of the people behind the art. Did your older sister need to want to bang Matt Berninger for this band to be successful in this brave new world" Was your cousin going to get 'Slow Show' tattooed on his knuckles" Were you about to ask for a 'Dessner brother' haircut any time soon" Nah, of course not; the world of music had changed and now the kids would fall for this band despite the band members all being twice their age. Who ever would have thunk it"
The fascinating thing is now this all seems a total irrelevance. Since 2007's 'Boxer' the band haven't once looked back, instead forging ahead releasing impeccable album after impeccable album with enviable panache. Their story serves as ample proof that the easiest way to catch up with your peers in the music game is to shut your cake holes and deliver three classic albums in a row...and that's just what this lot did. The upshot is that the band's stature in 2017 finally befits their ages; six albums in and their discography commands they be viewed as respected elder statesmen, and what's more, they OWN that billing. The only question for the band approaching album number seven was what to do now they'd established themselves at the very top of the tree" The answer's supposed to be 'whatever you want to do, Sir', but can you think of anything more likely to cause a bout of existential over-examination in these forty somethings than the prospect of that"
No wonder the band decided to take the equivalent of a gap year after finishing touring 'Trouble Will Find Me' and broke their usual tight two year recording schedule. In a Radiohead stylee the various members took time out to pursue various side ventures, the most active of whom being Bryce Dessner who quickly went about channelling his inner Jonny Greenwood; he threw himself into highbrow soundtrack works and then went full on rock opera, helping to launch Sufjan Stevens into space with the aid of his precision guitar work. So when The National finally regrouped after all this 'rich personal artistic development' it's no surprise there was a collective conscious decision to do things differently, in particular there was a desire to relax into the recording process to a greater degree than ever before. Hell, maybe they could even manage to actively enjoy it this time.
Once again the Dessner brothers coproduce here, only this time in a freshly constructed studio in idyllic rural surrounds. How would this environment impact the man the rest of the band had come to refer to as 'The Dark Lord'" Well, Berninger certainly doesn't take the opportunity to fully lighten up his act in the manner his EL VY performances suggested he might; for the most part he's still 'as you were'. No, it's the music itself that's most perceptibly 'lighter' and looser on 'Sleep Well Beast', traits that make for an agreeableness that sides this release more with 'Boxer' than its immediate predecessors. Sure, there's still a degree of murk lurkin' in the mix, but it's no longer anywhere near as all-pervasive. Believe it or not, some of this album is downright airy, and that quality does eventually seep into Matt's delivery from time to time.
The pacing of the album also seems deliberately structured to add a little extra pep into proceedings, most obviously on 'Side A' which strictly adheres to the well established longevity trick of ordering the songs to run 'deep cut / catchy cut / deep cut / catchy cut'. This first 'side' is the more traditionally 'National' of the two and is where you'll find the stadium-ready propulsive rocker 'Day I Die' and the unexpected guitar solo heroics of 'The System Only Dreams...'. The latter track boasts quite possibly the most fitting chorus for Berninger's voice the band have penned to date, and overall the song is left sounding like a 'Lemonworld' that's been allowed a full night's kip and given a shot of pure undiluted confidence. The subtle 'uns slipped between these noisy lads are equally effective; 'Nobody Else...' is elegant and stately, as was ever the case with National openers yada yada; 'Walk it Back's a deconstructed waking dream of a track, barely recognisable as a song, its disorientating structure only making it all the more curious and ultimately seductive in the long run; and 'Born to Beg' is a 'Slipped-alike' and further evidence this band can shit out perfectly formed low key ballads to order.
After 'Turtleneck' has finished shouting 'Surprise!' at the listener like the adorable goof it is (did you invite him"), the album quickly manages to right itself again, even if it soon becomes evident we've now been knocked onto a slightly altered course. The next three songs work almost as their own self contained mini-suite and see the atmospherics ramped up as the electronic layering and orchestral flourishes become ever more noticeable. This material finds 'Sleep Well Beast' at its most pristine and airy, and yes, this is where the band come dangerously close to delivering an all-new fresh flavour. 'Carin at the Liquor Store' and the wtf-titled 'Dark Side of the Gym' follow, and although they both keep to more well-trod National territory, it's reassuring they also manage to retain the same bright feel as their neighbours.
All that's left is for 'Sleep Well Beast' to sign off with its most overall satisfying statement, the six and a half minute abstract noise-collage title track; a welcome slice of out and out experimentation, and one that should be chalked up by the band as a risk well worth taking. That extra year of anticipation provided ample opportunity for fans to speculate that this release would mark a 'Kid A' level of departure and it has to be said that this is the only moment to really justify such hypothesising. Perhaps a more radical shift in approach is yet to come" Maybe the band will take a five year hiatus next time and return as the modern day answer to Kraftwerk" It doesn't seem likely; subtle shifts are what this band have dabbled in ever since they first hit on that perfect note back in 2005. You don't get to where The National are by taking such things for granted, and they've certainly been meticulous in their consideration and craft up to this point. Yes, album number seven is less of a revolution in sound than was initially predicted, but scratch just below the surface and you'll find plenty of evidence that this band are starting to embrace the artistic freedoms their newfound status as established elder statesmen affords them. The National's 'better late than never' rise to success is a somewhat unlikely story; credit these relative old-timers, for their continued success looks anything but unlikely.