Review: The National, Sleep Well Beast

The National snap out of their comfortable groove on Sleep Well Beast, but the fundamentals are unchanged
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The National Sleep Well Beast cover

You disappoint me, America. As a non-citizen, your political situation bums me out to no end. November 8, 2016 was a miserable night, and the ensuing months have been about as bad as one would have cared to imagine. One silver lining it felt reasonable to hold out hope for was an uptick in righteous, political protest songs. Yet as we slowly, agonizingly approach the anniversary of this shitshow, it’s been unexpectedly slim pickings for airwave outrage.

The National have never been a political band, though they are political individuals. Publicly throwing your weight behind four consecutive presidential candidates earns you that moniker—like it or not. Needless to say, 2017 has not been a banner year for the National, either, for many reasons. They’re having a bit of a rough go.

To hear their discography, it’s been a rough go for quite a while. Their sad-sack sentimentality has been both a crutch and one of their biggest draws since their 2005 breakthrough Alligator. Twelve years later, lead singer Matt Berninger has yet to lose touch with the wretched uneasiness that comes with being a loser. Now, it’s not just his internal monologue; it’s the world that’s fucked up, too.

Though it’s not overtly political, Sleep Well Beast is at least conscious of the world it was born into. As such, it’s naturally somber, with the occasional outburst. Berninger has said that Sleep Well Beast is about “marriages falling apart,” but the lyrics are enigmatic enough that it isn’t the only plausible interpretation in many instances. I have no doubt this choice is deliberate.

But in some cases, there’s no escaping the implication: “Walk it Back”, with its gasping synths and twilit guitars, contains an audio sample of a quote that has since been attributed to Karl Rove: "You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality/That's not the way the world really works anymore/We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality." The ramifications of this worldview are beginning to emerge. It goes a long way in explaining the rampant mistrust of information that has come to nestle in society’s heart like a cancer. It as explicit as the National have ever been.

Elsewhere, the conversation softens, exploring the implications of the problem instead of the root: “I have no position/No point-of-view or vision/I’m just trying to stay in touch with anything I’m still in touch with,” Berninger croaks on “I’ll Still Destroy You”, which serves both as Beast’s most melancholic and ferocious song. Lead single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is even less direct in its word choices, though its title brings to mind a renowned phrase. Backed by a collage of horns and Bryan Devendorf’s powerful drumming, Berninger almost sounds, well, righteous when he sings “I can tell that somebody sold you.”

But for all of the fire in their bellies, this is still a National album, and it’s not a National album without their trademark atmosphere. “Day I Die” is a masterwork of majestic melancholy in the vein of “Brainy” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio”. The bruised, piano-based “Carin at the Liquor Store”, presumably about Berninger’s wife, recalls “Pink Rabbits”. These are National songs, and there are certain expectations; but Sleep Well Beast just finds the band meeting them with a consistency not seen since Boxer.

But while this is the National’s first real attempt at reinvention in some time, it also finds them looking way, way back. With its refrain “I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while,” “Dark Side of the Gym” explores a sentiment that wouldn’t be out of place on Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. “Born to Beg” finds them in a similar mood, deftly treading well-worn territory without sounding like they’re recycling, thanks to the window-dressing electronics. The lone misfire here is the chaotic, shapeless “Turtleneck”, which sees the boys living down to their dad rock designation.

With that isolated exception, these songs are thoughtful and experimental, and it lends a tension that would otherwise be absent. Despite the slower tempo of many of these songs, the use of synths, pops and clicks renders them jittery. Despite the lack of guitar-centrism, the Dessner brothers use guitars in way they never have before (solos anyone?). It’s a different kind of thing now, even if the fundamentals are unchanged. It finds the National snapping out of the comfortable groove they’ve settled in over the last decade, fuelled by strife, battle-tested wisdom, and a touch of righteousness. A MINUS