The National – Sleep Well Beast

The National return with their seventh studio album in September, the electronically-adventurous Sleep Well Beast. Long Live Vinyl brings you a review of the follow-up to Trouble Will Find Me.

Sleep Well Beast

Album seven sees the now globally dispersed Ohio kings of immersive melancholy continue to wrestle with the challenge of becoming ever-more popular while scratching the creative itches that have seen all five members launch projects that stride in myriad directions. For the follow-up to 2013’s bleakly brilliant Trouble Will Find Me, the band reunited at guitarist Aaron Dessner’s upstate New York studio and the result is both a comfortingly familiar slow-burner and a departure into electronic experimentalism.

From the sombre piano chords of Nobody Else Will Be There, with a weary, hollowed-out Matt Berninger sighing: “You said we’re not so tied together/ What did you mean?” it’s clear this is an album about separation, although Berninger has stated it’s not autobiographical. Strings peek into the mix as the opener builds gently to a crescendo that never arrives. A stirring example of The National as masters of restraint, it would have been entirely at home on Trouble Will Find Me.
A thundering tom rhythm from the ever-innovative Bryan Devendorf ushers in Day I Die and a typically wry Berninger line: “Let’s get high enough to see our problems”. It also introduces the first of several lacerating guitar riffs from the Dessner twins. Indeed, the album, scattered with electronic loops, is at turns both the band’s most and least guitar-centric. The Crazy Horse-like solo on first single The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness tears through the heart of a song built for stadiums.
Yet evidence of the evolution in the band’s sound arrives via the pulsing synth underpinning the patient Walk It Back, with Berninger at his adroit, wine-glass-half-empty best: “I tried to save it for a rainy day/ It’s raining all the time”. Born To Beg is another beautiful piano ballad with an arpeggiating synth, that’s shot through with nostalgic love-lorn loyalty, while the opinion-dividing Turtleneck spits with the kind of raw urgency that characterised 2005’s Alligator, and has notes of Berninger’s side-project EL VY in its lo-fi DNA.
Long-time fans may find themselves most sated by Side Two, a run of songs of true majesty beginning with the Sorrow-evoking Empire Line and ending with the Pink Rabbits-like Carin At The Liquor Store. I’ll Still Destroy You and Guilty Party are a pair of gut-wrenchingly sad tales that hint heavily at the fresh scars of a family pulled apart. The former begins with a skittering electronic beat and a cooing looped vocal. It soars out of the mire into a hugely infectious chorus, Devendorf taking over in emphatic fashion. Berninger’s “Put your heels against the wall/ I swear you’ve got a little taller since I saw you” cuts to the bone before the song is whipped up to a heady brew of stunning drumming and cacophonous orchestration.
Guilty Party is even more direct, defeated. “It’s nobody’s fault, no guilty party/ We’ve just got nothing left to say,” Berninger concedes before a mesmeric harp riff takes centre stage, yielding to regal brass that’s a callback to 2007’s Boxer. It’s a fitting microcosm – The National still strikingly beautiful, with the same flair for euphoric sorrow and compositional brilliance, but a newfound thirst for electronic invention. Sleep Well Beast won’t make them massive overnight, but the steady, organic growth of a band who get under your skin and take hold continues. The thinking man’s stadium act are very much awake.
Gary Walker