‘America’s Radiohead’ The National have brought forth their latest album Sleep Well Beast, meaning like many other delightful things such as Wonders of the World and the Harry Potter novels, their album discography now totals a glorious collection of seven. Frontman Matt Berninger, whose deep, baritone vocals at times parallel Ian Curtis and Ricky Wilson, has admitted to NME that he’s often ‘full of fear and self-loathing’, which consequently makes for an album rich with perspective and emotion.
Sleep Well Beast’s leading track ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ creeps in with building instrumentals before slow piano notes are layered on top, a sequence so quintessentially representative of the group mere seconds into the record. Another heart wrenching ballad from the group who do it best, Berninger uses a metaphor of leaving a busy party to find somewhere quiet to talk to reflect the difficulty of finding time to talk in a relationship “not so tied together”. Its lyrics also briefly mention New York “getting cold again”, mirroring the group’s suitability to and choice to release their latest LP in Autumn.
Another heart wrenching ballad from the group who do it best
Producer and band member Aaron Dessner has spoken of the group’s choice of not rushing the album, ‘with members now living in five different cities’, a method which has paid off. Subsequent ‘Day I Die’, with its simple yet riling instrumentals maintain The National’s signature sound yet makes for fresh listening in 2017. Similarly, ‘Walk It Back’ preserve this with electro beats as a backdrop for Berninger’s vocals, which initially are not far off Jarvis Cocker.
Having performed at various campaign rally events for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the band have made no secret of their political engagement. It’s hardly surprising to the listener, therefore, that ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ is a politically charged piece of ‘an abstract portrait of the time we’re in’, according to an interview with Pitchfork.
the band have made no secret of their political engagement
Berninger’s wife co-wrote ‘Born to Beg’, a song about loving someone you feel is better than you; a potentially personal piece from the group’s frontman reiterated by its origin. ‘Turtleneck’ stands out from preceding numbers, instantly heard from the drumsticks counting the track in and its heavier instrumentals and rockier guitar structures, it could almost be mistaken for another group when isolated from Berninger’s vocals.
‘Empire Line’ once again sees the group dice with experimental instrumentals on a song about the Empire State train line running from New York City to Albany, New York, again with a metaphor about a stale relationship whose lyrics double up to describe a long journey, such as “I don’t think we’re getting anywhere any time soon”. Successive ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ and ‘Guilty Party’ are yet again instantly recognisable as belonging to The National, with Berninger’s self-loathing lyrics juxtaposing the underlaying tinkly melodies.
Into the final few tracks on an album which slips by so smoothly, ‘Carin at the Liquor Store’ sees the group relax yet blend together to create one of the album’s softer numbers, before ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ sweeps in, an intimate purely love-ridden song positively proclaiming Berninger’s feelings. Referencing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Memories’ in its title, it could sign off the album well if it wasn’t for final title track ‘Sleep Well Beast’, the album’s longest track and perhaps its most progressive. Reflecting on the idea of their children and their innocence towards the world and almost hibernating away from everything; the last four years of the group crafting the record and hibernating themselves away are almost audible on the most experimental track on the album yet.
Dessner has explained that is was ‘important to genuinely explore new territory’, something Sleep Well Beast does well without losing any of the resonance created over the near two-decade existence of the group. Dessner has added that ‘the album feels complete to me’, with the latter no doubt the opinion of The National fans around the globe, who have eagerly waited for this record since 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, and have not been disappointed.