The National is releasing their seventh studio album, “Sleep Well Beast” After a four-year break. A hiatus where it seemed the band members of the National have collaborated on more side projects than there are days in a year. The new release follows 2013’s widely acclaimed “Trouble with Me”. “Sleep Well Beast” is easily identifiable as a The National effort but has called great musical inspiration from the varied side projects the members have participated in during their break. The resulting album is filled with examinations of interpersonal relationships and politics both personal and global.
The National came into existence in 1999 in Cincinnati, Ohio when childhood friends Bryan Devendorf and Aaron Dessner along with his brother Bryce launched The National. Shortly thereafter Matt Berninger would join the effort on vocals and Scott Devendorf would join his brother providing bass for the band. What would transpire after their founding was an unlikely journey where The National would become an Alternative Uber band. They would become critic darlings with their worthy musical offerings. Each of their six prior studio albums built success upon success as they acquired various accolades and recognition. Their success would explode exponentially with the release of 2005’s “Alligator” followed by the one-two punch of 2007’s “Boxer” and 2010’s “High Violet”. Both of these albums would win them a legion of devoted fans. “Boxer” is a frequent entrant on Album of the Decade lists, while “High Violet” would provide success on the charts, going # 3 on the US charts and #5 on the UK charts. It would also win the Best Album Award at the Q Awards. 2013’s “Trouble with Me” would again gain chart success and a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album.
“Sleep Well Beast” had its origins in September of 2014 when Aaron Dessner handed Matt Berninger his first musical sketches. This time around the band would need a different approach to recording. This new approach would prove necessary as the various members of the band had scattered to 5 different cities on the globe making recording logistics tricky. The solution they decided upon was long stretches of working together in chosen locals, where they could mess around without deadlines and distractions. A length writing session for Aaron and Bryce in an old church in Hudson, NY would be highly productive moving the project along. Another big assist came with the completion of Aaron’s residential studio in Long Pond, NY where the majority of the album would be recorded. With this facility, the band could have for the first time all their instruments in one place allowing the band to work on songs day or night. This open concept was a major factor in letting the juices flow.
The political environment surrounding the “Sleep Well Beast” recording would seem to provide an interesting opportunity for The National. The band has never been shy about their political leanings and has been prolifically active supporting numerous liberal political causes. On their website the list of causes they support is extensive. Hence with this title, one could expect an erudite condemnation of our current leader of the free world and significant helpings of political insight. But The National are if anything unpredictable; the majority of the tracks are relationship songs, filled oft times with regret and introspection on the topic. In the end “Turtleneck” is one of the few songs that really jumps out as a political song. What does transpire on the release is The National proffering their wry observations on the swirling mess of our society and blending them with the tempests of self-doubt and small daily dramas that play out in our heads.
On “Sleep Well Beast” the literate and prosaic lyrics hook the listener creating a universality that is alluring and hard to forget. The leadoff track, “Nobody Else Will Be There” has a moody sensuality that combines with a dreamlike haunting aura. The track puts the listener on notice that they about to experience something sublimely nuanced. Overall on the release, there is a fine balance of quiet tracks and then amazing rock infused corkers. “Day I Die” and Turtleneck” are surprising rockers that are radio-friendly without losing The National’s beautiful lyrical craftsmanship. “Turtleneck” vies for my favourite track on the album with “The System Only Dreams in Darkness”. On “Turtleneck” Berninger channels Nick Cave with his vocal presentation. It is so exciting to hear the band let loose with this sinisterly clever psychedelic pop track. The theme itself is about consumerism and commercialism, attacking the glorifying of style over substance. The wry lyric “you have to buy this turtleneck” emphasizing the ridiculousness our societal avarice. My other favourite “The System Only Dreams in Darkness” is an utterly alluring track that is unrepentantly rock oriented. The well-constructed track produces this dramatic sweeping song co-mingling stunning piano work with fantastic polyrhythms which deliver something spectacular. Also of note is “Walk it Back” with its techno/industrial feel. The song emanates a feeling of paranoia and hopelessness. The narrator ponders why attempting to improve things seems to come to nought which is underlined by the lyric, “nothing I change, changes anything…How do you save for a rainy day when it’s raining all the time?” The accompaniment has crystalline guitars that are so sharp they could be knives producing an arresting spiralling effect.
Other standouts tracks are the lovelorn pair, “Carin at the Liquor Store” and “Dark Side of The Gym” both of which speak to doomed crushes and accepting the foregone conclusion that a romance will fail before it has a chance to start. Both songs are moving because of their wide-eyed understanding of how faulty we all are with nothing much to offer another individual. This theme is underlined in lyrics like that sung in “Carin at the Liquor Store”, “I wasn’t the catch or a keeper.” The songs are disarming in their heartache and introspective clarity. The album wraps up with the title track, “Sleep Well Beast” portraying a sleepwalker captured in a nightmare providing a stream of conscious commentary. The narrator is looking back over his shoulder at his life and wishing to go back to the start. It could be suggested that this entire nightmare is informed by the unsettling political/societal environment we are experiencing today and the nostalgia for a better time. The sinister refrain “I’ll still destroy you someday, beast sleep well” could be directed at politicians or less concrete entities that threaten our well being. The interpretation is left to the listener. Never the less it is an arresting track that needs repeated listens to catch all the elements.
“Sleep Well Beast” again displays The National at the top of their game. Theirs is a heady brew of inspired intellectual lyrics infused with deep feeling and supported by supremely masterful musical accompaniment. Each The National album seems like their best effort yet and “Sleep Well Beast” continues the streak with the new release being their strongest effort to date. It is an extraordinary album that should please their followers and once again succeed on a larger stage.