Review Summary: Sleeping better, cutting deeper
With just a little patience, any competent rock band could've stumbled upon The National's sound at any point and kept it for themselves. As apropos as the comparison may seem now on paper, they are not Radiohead. They were, and at the core are still a post-punk revival-tinged indie rock band. Their second album had flashes of 'woah, where'd that come from' variety, most memorably in the way of ethereal alt-country odyssey 'Cardinal Song.' But in general, they've been a band characterized by their more tangible, straightforward aspects: chiefly, their incredibly clever and coolly consistent songwriting style. Is the spell Matt Berninger casts as a frontman rooted in his amazing vocal ability" No, I'd wager it's a result of him finding his own bit and sticking with it, while giving us purposeful, refreshing little departures now and then along the way. The masterful, unmistakable lyricism probably didn't hurt, either.
So it's no wonder that seemingly from their breakthrough Alligator
and onward, the band was branded as a serious 'grower,' not to mention how often I've seen them described, and described them myself as 'understated.' Their songs conjure familiar feelings, and generally build up to boiling points those initiated in the genre are likely familiar with. So the band was forced to rely on their songwriting tricks and setting up unique atmospheres, if they wanted to keep going. And they kept going. Looking back on their discography, they became a textbook model of how a band can keep things fresh without going off the deep end, and how a band can remain familiar without parodying themselves. Though their repertoire has always been gradually expanding, I say all this merely as a reference point to how unique their latest opus, Sleep Well Beast,
Even if it didn't have the somber and rather hopeless Trouble Will Find Me
in its rearview, Sleep Well Beast
would still be a breathtaking jolt. There's still all the sorrow and longing you'd expect from a National record, but the songs here sound so much less saddled with themselves than they have in the past. A juxtaposition like the airy, bittersweet piano ballad 'Nobody Else Will Be There' next to the pulsing, nostalgic earworm of 'Day I Die' would've been brash and perhaps misguided on Trouble,
but here it's a crucial moment. It's where we see the kind of band we're dealing with now: one that has no problem, in aesthetic or execution, with completely switching it up; building a lull just to smash it to pieces. 'Day I Die' is unlikely in a number of ways: it has the immediacy and the grandeur of a stadium rock anthem (lifted along by its momentary, yet instantly recognizable guitar motif), and yet it's totally brainy and even slyly humorous. Berninger's voice just floats there, inexplicably sounding twenty-five again. "...In the hallway when you get too high and talk forever."
It's his final hour, but all he wants to know is, "Where will we be""
And this is only the second track.
'The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness' is a barn-burner as well, lit by a tumbling, distinctly Devendorf drumbeat and trademarked by a visit from Berninger's delightful higher register. The song climbs into a raucous guitar solo then quickly tapers off into a moment of respite, where suddenly all the softer, more fleeting sounds become the whole world. Essentially, the band just sounds a lot more volatile, and to hear that filtered through their usual sophistication is simply intoxicating. Sure, 'Turtleneck' is a bit questionably placed, and maybe a little underproduced honestly, but its tongue is also firmly in cheek, and after all this time, it's exciting to hear the band bring out the noisiest, most brazen thing they've ever done on a dime.
But the surprises don't only extend to raucous numbers. Here we have 'Walk It Back,' a tour-de-force of a track that feels nebulous, especially for The National, in both how much space it creates and how much it takes up. It's a large room, but the electronic rays that seem to brighten and fade at will in the corners create a sense of certain walls closing in. The chorus melody verges on drippy, moving back and forth with a sway of the head like a nursery rhyme, but its lifeblood is still a very real trepidation: "I only take up a little of the collapsing space/I better cut this off, don't wanna fuck up the place."
And the brief, but emphasized instrumental sections that the first two refrains both lead into is simply gorgeous. Led by just a few light guitar notes, it sounds like The National taking that one part you love from that post-rock album you couldn't bother finishing and giving it even more size and warmth.
But nor was I prepared for 'Empire Line,' a haunting, slightly uneasy ballad that seems to find its effect in its rigidity, a stuttering, delayed piano motif its flagship sound. And then there's the frantic pace of 'I'll Still Destroy You,' offset in lovely fashion by its gloriously weepy imagery: "This one's like your mother's arms when she was young and sunburnt in the eighties/Lasts forever."
Here I'll confirm that my relationship with this band's music is indeed a close and tender one. Many songs of theirs have reduced me to goo on a number of occasions. But never, never have I been cut so deeply and melted so thoroughly on first listen as with 'Born to Beg.' The hushed moan Berninger gives after the first "I was born..."
is layered with another echoing sound that's hard to decipher. It could be a very filtered voice sample or just a synth note, but either way, it results in the tiny moment feeling endless and bone-chilling. The song isn't necessarily a surrender of dignity, it goes beyond that. "I'd cry, crawl/I'd do it all/Teakettle love, I'd do anything."
It feels more like a simple statement of priority. And it shows that even when the band is feelin' a little more wild n' free, they still have the wherewithal for simple ballads as gut-wrenching as any of their other classic tear-jerkers.
And then there's that title track - The National's first - and it's a closer. Initially I was unsure about the trippy, though soft and reflective 'Sleep Well Beast' coming right after the already impossibly delicate 'Dark Side of the Gym,' but repeated listens revealed this song is truly a beast of all its own, one place where a Radiohead comparison feels truly apt. One might doubt a song that rolls around one electronic rhythm for its whole duration would work as a closer for these particular songs, but once again, The National figured it out. It's not a celebratory send-off like 'Mr. November,' and definitely not a stripped-down singalong like 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.' It's a gradually deepening and darkening room with walls made of all kinds of miscellaneous indietronica. I wish I could describe it clearer - let's just say that speaks to how singular the song is. I'd venture to say it's the first time The National have been this enclosed by themselves. But as the tones get heavier, and the listener's on the verge of hypnosis, Berninger sounds nothing but cool. "I'll tell you 'bout it sometime/The time we left,"
he winks. And to the object of all this frustrated longing: "I'll still destroy you someday, sleep well beast/You as well, beast."
He's almost at a whisper by the end, while the music around him has basically suffocated itself. The song flows naturally by nature; it wouldn't exist if it had to go another way. And a song like this feels like a very natural closer in the context of this album, an overall much more visceral and effervescent outing than its predecessors. Incidentally, wishing well to the beast turned out to be quite emotionally satisfying.
The energy on Sleep Well Beast
sounds youthful, yet the craft at work here is evidence of a band at their most mature. The National always had a sound, and it was always intoxicating, but here it feels much more to me like a reflection of reality, rather than a clever translation. Just like life, the tracklist here is a free-form shape, and seems to prefer retaining control so as to startle you when it wants, rather than being there to provide reassurance. That combined with the exquisite pacing, the immaculate technicolor production, and The National's usual airtight songwriting, makes for something precious not just for the band, but really for modern popular music. As your normie would say, I can really dance to this one.