Written by Kai Feltham
The National are, and always have been, a band that one must truly grasp to enjoy.
Melancholic, habitually dark and relentlessly introspective and self-critical, the music they produce is more suited to mid-life contemplation than fashionable youthful angst.
In Sleep Well Beast though, The National appear to have achieved the seemingly unattainable: a record with enough invention to gather the curious ears of new listeners, whilst also remaining true to the loyal fans that have followed them over the years. By preserving the lovable misery and uncompromising self-reflection that has become synonymous with their work, their fanbase is set to continue to grow year upon year.
Revealed on September 8th, Sleep Well Beast is the seventh full length release from the Cincinatti outfit, led by the enigmatic, heavy drinking and fully suited frontman Matt Berninger ably supported by two sets of brothers – twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars and keyboards and Scott and Bryan Devendorf on bass and drums respectively. Adding further weight to their ever growing reputation as one of the most “popular, unpopular” bands on the circuit, Sleep Well Beast has gained rave reviews from every corner of the critical sphere. Without too many spoilers, this is unlikely to be any different.
The slow and sombre opening of Nobody Else Will Be There is an ode towards individual solitude amongst the constant crowds of modern life. Matt Berninger asks to “meet me in the stairwell in a second for a glass of gin / Nobody else will be there”, slinking away into his own corner of the congested party. A simple yet deeply emotive chord sequence is perfectly complemented by Berninger’s unique baritone voice and appropriately unassuming percussive textures.
The song almost serves as a soothing red herring, as Day I Die breaks into heavy beats of rhythmic drumming; screeching guitar chords succeeding every directly delivered chorus as Berninger repeatedly asks on “the day I die / Where will we be?” Both of the opening two tracks are quintessentially familiar with much of The National’s exceedingly beloved back catalogue, and open Sleep Well Beast with the reassuring comfort that after four years without any new releases, very little has changed. Such common features of The National’s work are notable throughout, mostly apparent through the band’s overwhelmingly talented rhythm section.
Brought together by the natural camaraderie of brotherhood, the Dessners and Devendorfs combine together to the expectedly high level, rolling percussion siding up to soothing piano chords, weaving between uncomfortable guitar chords and unassuming brass and strings. Sleep Well Beast is ultimately nothing overly new to The National’s faithful throng of regular listeners, with plenty to keep every long term fan satisfied.
This hallowed rhythm section is at its finest in lead single The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, as Bryan Devendorf’s relentless percussion drives the track into a wholly different universe. Fractured guitar solos from the Dessner twins glide in and out, pierced only by Matt Berninger’s deep vocal. Similarly, the punk-like drive of Turtleneck is led by the drums of Bryan Devendorf in what is one of The National’s heaviest tracks to date. The admirable versatility of The National’s rhythm section lends equally to anguish driven anthems such as Turtleneck, and in the past the likes of Squalor Victoria and Mr November, as well as tear-jerking ballads such as Carin At The Liquor Store, as well as classics I Need My Girl and All The Wine. The National are a band with many different faces, none of which would be possible without the talents of the fraternal rhythm section at their heart.
Whilst much of The National’s artistic clarity owes to the musical brilliance of its rhythm section, the lanky, unassuming school-teacher looking frontman Matt Berninger is the individual that takes centre stage, characterising the band as an entity. It is his struggles and inner thoughts which ooze out of their work, as the chief lyrical writer. Much of the genius of The National’s work is found within Berninger’s reflective, self-deprecating and darkly humorous literary craft.
In I’ll Still Destroy You Berninger is viciously self-critical, his sharp tongue declaring “The more level they have me / The more I cannot stand me / I have helpless friendship / And bad taste in liquids.” In Guilty Party he laments his struggle to display love, empathy and to display true emotion as “Another year gets away / Another summer of love / I don’t know why I care.” This reclusive, almost squirming nature in the face of desire is reflected in the beautiful Carin At The Liquor Store, written directly about Berninger’s partner Carin Besser, a former New York Times Editor who is also directly credited as a lyrical contributor on the record.
The crooning lead vocalist labels himself “I was a worm / I was a creature / I wasn’t a catch / I wasn’t a keeper.” Much of Berninger’s lyrical output is heart wrenchingly relatable and it is this quality which raises his unmistakably recognisable vocals and their accompanying literary beast above many of his contemporaries. All of this work though pales in comparison with the punk-driven anger of Turtleneck, an aggressively driven political anthem in which Berninger drives his pen into the heart of modern society and its questionable political shape.
Shouting “the poor, they leave their cellphones in the bathrooms of the rich” leads to an angry admission that “Oh no, this is embarrassing / Oh the pissing fits.” As vocal supporters of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and regular campaigners for social mobility and policy, it does not take a genius to guess who Berninger’s musical tirade is aimed towards. As he has done throughout their lengthy back catalogue, Matt Berninger has presented a self-flagellating, thought-provoking and achingly relatable catalogue of lyrical musings on Sleep Well Beast. His work is a literature of its own, and plays a monumental role in the artistic prowess of The National.
Whilst much is of course the same, it is however too often easy for the modern day band to allow themselves the luxurious comfort of producing the equivalent music year upon year, record after record. Sleep Well Beast though displays entirely new elements creeping into the work that The National present, to an extremely successful effect.
In the words of Matt Berninger himself, the new record is “less polished” than their previous efforts, with less importance placed upon the touching up, editing and mastering process and more focus on the raw nature of their ideas, and the artistic outcome that develops. In the case of this album, the use of soundscapes, electronic effects and glitches has played a key role in the band’s output.
Walk It Back opens with what almost replicates a techno beat, with Berninger’s recognisable tone narrating above it. The effect is at first jarring, but develops throughout the album.
Born to Beg combines the plodding piano keys of Bryce Dessner, with a continuous synthetic beat humming along in the background to create a comforting soundscape, coming to a close as disjointed strings and guitar chords battle for the listener’s attention. Sleep Well Beast is at its core an album best enjoyed from cover to cover; a sensation emanating directly from much of the electronic influences on the record. Empire Line fades in seamlessly, effected piano chords and strings bursting through electronic textures.
The aforementioned Walk it Back flourishes from siren-like noises into a typically plodding track, towards ending with muted excerpts from news bulletins, while I’ll Still Destroy You is almost entirely directed by its electronically charged backdrop.
Throughout the record though, such electronic influences are not utilised as a gratuitous gimmick, or a glorified added bonus as many artists would choose to do so – they just simply fit with the overall feel of the record. The album is somehow able to be varied and new, whilst still remaining true to The National’s heralded aesthetic. The simple fact that this is possible is an overwhelming credit to the compositional talents of those behind its inception.
From cover to cover Sleep Well Beast is an almighty triumph, possibly even The National’s greatest album to date. All of their heralded qualities come together with beauty, emotion, angst and lyrical genius to present an artistically brilliant artefact. With a sold out run of UK shows coming up, their single set to be featured on the upcoming FIFA 18 soundtrack and a possible first UK Number One album; it may very soon finally be ‘cool’ to love The National.
Watch the video for lead single The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness here:
Credit: The National