Daniel Jacobson reviews the latest album from American alt-rock band, The National.
The National have always had an extraordinary ability to combine youthful energy with crippling introversion. Like Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, or Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space, the music plays out wonderfully live, but also feels right to listen to on headphones, on a lonely bus ride home at 3am. I first heard ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’, the lead single from this new record, while staring blankly into a cup of black coffee in a McDonalds’ on Finchley Road, following a particularly poor Statistics exam: solemn, yet painfully apt.
Sleep Well Beast is The National’s most disparate and varied record since 2005’s Alligator. Past albums have each been set their own constraints, such as the driving drums and subtle electronics of Boxer, or the ambient orchestration of Trouble Will Find Me. Bearing this in mind, this new record feels like an amalgamation of all the skills the members have acquired across their career, including lesser-appreciated (but worthwhile) side projects LNZNDRF and Planetarium. This holds true across the album: from the distorted guitars and humorous, political lyrics of ‘Turtleneck’ (‘This is so embarrassing/Ah, we’re pissing fits/Crying on our doorsteps in t-shirts loose and ripped’), to one of the album’s highlights ‘Guilty Party’, a song with a build so subtle and intricate that its power is only evident upon rewinding.
Lyrically, however, The National are consistent. In Rolling Stone, lead singer and lyricist Matt Berninger described the record as being ‘about marriage, and it’s about marriages falling apart’. In reality, his marriage is healthy — so much so that his wife, editor and producer Carin Besser, co-wrote many of the lyrics with Berninger. Regardless, his self-esteem, or lack thereof, is apparent, particularly on ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’, where his self-deprecation is set to a beautiful, ebbing 6/8 piano harmony (‘It’s gonna be different after tonight/You’re gonna see me in a different light’). The National have long been obsessed with fraught relationships, and the insecurities they bring: the 2011 documentary film Mistaken For Strangers, created by Berninger’s brother, Tom, began as a fun documentation of life on the road during their High Violet world tour, but ended up being a touching reflection on fraternal love and acceptance. On Sleep Well Beast, as on all of their records, the band couples intimacy with rock and roll.
Interestingly, there is a certain profundity that comes with the moments, scattered throughout Sleep Well Beast, where The National sound like their insecurities are about to swallow them whole. This is obvious on the chaotic, ragged guitars of ‘Turtleneck’, or the key motif and solo of ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’. Their anxieties turn political on ‘Walk It Back’, featuring the words of Republican advisor Karl Rove, as read by Irish folk singer Lisa Hannigan:
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.
Here, for the first time, The National’s inward brooding begins to sound like an outward panic.
Whilst upon immediate listen, it may sound like The National have lost the laser-sharp focus of their previous records, Sleep Well Beast’s subtle powers reveal themselves slowly to the listener. Although they sound more worried and rugged than ever, the band still retains the vulnerability, sensitivity, and sense of catharsis that make them an important band.
Featured image courtesy of npr.org