Review Summary: It's a forgone conclusion
It happens more often than not: Artists who reach the latter end of their career suddenly alter their already-established sound as a way to introduce fresh musicality, but in doing so, they run the risk of repelling long-time fans and placing themselves in the dreaded “washed out rocker” status. But despite such risks, The National, an established indie-rock group of eighteen years, uses Sleep Well Beast as an opportunity to incorporate electronic elements into their music in a manner that can only be described as exquisite.
Since the band’s conception in 1999, The National has exhibited an appearance of poise and control with their music. The band’s frontman, Matt Berninger, is the focal point of their sound with his resonant baritone voice meandering its way across solemn piano-based settings. With the band’s two sets of brothers to back him, Berninger has expressed lyrical themes of clever cynicism that can be imagined as wine-fueled soliloquies within ritzy hotel rooms. However, as the band matures, Berninger shifts his themes from glamorous adulthood to the highs and lows of married life and its effect on individuals.
From the opening note of Sleep Well Beast, this maturity is evident. The album’s first track “Nobody Else Will Be There” opens with a slow fade into a soft piano progression over a minimal drumbeat. When Berninger enters, his whispered voice addresses a loved-one asking, “Can’t we just go home?” Instead of enjoying the thrill of a social outing, Berninger’s weathered nature causes him to long for a place of solitude.
The height of the album comes at the latter half with the two back-to-back ballads “Carin at the Liquor Store” and “Dark Side of the Gym.” The first features an uplifting piano sequence played by Aaron Dessner -- "Carin at the Liquor Store” is dedicated to Dessner’s late mother-in-law. When the song’s shimmering guitar solo enters, the sincerity behind its nature is truly felt. “Dark Side of the Gym” is driven by a whimsical keyboard that gives the song a childlike ambiance, which Matt Berninger’s repeated chorus of “I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while” makes it the album’s most earnest song.
Such personal themes are consistent throughout the album’s runtime, however it soon becomes apparent that the music accompanying the band has shifted. The song “Walk it Back” enters with a rhythmic, watery synth that marks a new electronic direction for the band. In fact, these synthetic elements are almost always just under the surface of the majority of the album’s tracks as the band utilizes drum-pads and peculiar keyboard snippets.
Though such elements are a consistent part of Sleep Well Beast, they are never heavy-handed in fashion and seem to only supplement the established songs. Because of this approach, the band avoids ill responses from fans of their earlier sound as the essential aspects of themselves remain intact.
Despite their status as an aging group of musicians, The National proves that this classification doesn’t have to be negative. Matt Berninger -- with an array of fresh musical elements to support him -- gives listeners an honest take on the concept of maturity and the wonders and dilemmas that come along with it.
Notable Tracks: The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, Born to Beg, Carin at the Liquor Store, Dark Side of the Gym