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The National

Sleep Well Beast

Written by: MIN on 27/09/2017 14:11:51

The National is a tough beast to rate and review, especially when taking into account the fact that the band’s four previous full-length albums all have grown increasingly by each passing year. Matt Berninger’s lyrics have always had a way of sinking into your skin like crooked teeth, gnawing their way down slowly but firmly, making sure they never leave again. Likewise, the Dessner-brothers’ flair for subtle, intricate orchestrations and the Devendorfs’ unshakeable rhythm section add layer upon layer in a musical texture that feels ever expanding, guaranteeing that something will always make you want to come back for more no matter how well you know Berninger’s words by now. Impressively, The National have managed to stay true to their sound for many years while only tampering with it slightly, securing that although all of their records are rooted in the same ground, there’s something new to look for every time a new record arrives. Thankfully, “Sleep Well Beast” is no different.

An electric pulse softly pushes the album-opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” into gear just before the somber piano joins it, presenting a much darker and more melancholic soundscape than we’re used to from these Americans. Although The National’s music have always been moody, Berninger’s lyrics quickly display a less quirky, more depressing nature than usually. According to the band, Berninger wrote the lyrics in collaboration with his wife, Carin Besser, as a form of therapy, ultimately helping the couple cope with their problems, but what might have helped the two go on has created some of Berninger’s most direct and vulnerable lyrics yet. Obviously, oblique and twisted lines dating back to the days of “Alligator” (2005) still occur, but they’re less evident this time around. The album’s second song, “Day I Die”, is not only a nice recall to such previous lines (”the day I die // the day I die // where will we be?”), but even references Valentine Jester (“Val Jester” on “Alligator”).

Luckily, the album works best when embracing this new sound – a sound, where electronic loops and throbbing ambience cooperate with the band’s flair for guitar noise and playful drum-patterns. The record’s second half is so perfectly put together in regards to this back-and-forth that if the entirety of “Sleep Well Beast” was able to follow, The National might’ve released their strongest record since the 2007 masterpiece “Boxer”. From the “Achtung Baby”-esque pulse of “Empire Line” to the drum-loops of “Guilty Party” and from the longing of Berninger’s voice when he sings ”I’ll still destroy you” to the hopeful melody of “Dark Side of the Gym”, The National perfectly balances their organic perfection with this new-found interest in electronic details. Like a modern take on the band’s classic song “About Today” from the “Cherry Tree” EP (2004), the buzzing ballade “Guilty Party” pulls on the same heart-strings in a tale about the torn feelings of being in a failing relationship that you so desperately want to save, perfectly showing The National’s musical maturity juxtaposed with their impeccable writing:

I say your name // I say I’m sorry // I know it’s not working // I’m no holiday //

It’s nobody’s fault // No guilty party // We just got nothing // Nothing left to say

So why not just go ahead and slap another 9/10 on this? Well, unfortunately there are a few hick-ups along the road. As brilliantly “Sympathy for the Devil”-esque as the groovy “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is with all of its dual guitar-galore, as clumsy does the raucous “Turtleneck” feel, sandwiched between two of the record’s most somber tracks. It’s not necessarily a bad song, but despite its political origin (written as a reaction to the election of Donald Trump), it doesn’t have the punch of “Mr. November” or “Available” from the band’s past. “Born to Beg”, too, is a mild offender, as it tends to drag without any evident tempo-changes or lyrics gripping enough to grasp your attention throughout its duration.

Ultimately, “Sleep Well Beast” is another excellent addition to The National’s exemplary discography. It’s a record that sees the band make changes to their direction in terms of both lyrics and music, while managing to stay relevant to their fans and newcomers alike. It’s a dark and melancholic record, but thankfully it leaves a light in the dark as a guarantee that everything’s going to be okay, as the line ”I’m gonna keep you in love with me” on “Dark Side of the Gym” repeats itself. Wherever The National’s going next, no one knows, but it’s probably going to be alright in the end – they haven’t let us down thus far.

Download: Day I Die, The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, I’ll Still Destroy You, Guilty Party, Dark Side of the Gym
For The Fans Of: Interpol, EL VY, Lou Reed, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Twilight Sad, Talking Heads, Leonard Cohen
Listen: Facebook

Release date 08.09.2017
4AD


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