by Ryan Fine
Ever since The National came out with Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers in 2003, each one of their albums has come packed with great anticipation and praise. With their next album Alligator, they rose to yet another level of acclaim, forever proving themselves to be a prime source for sad, hopeless rock music. When they dropped “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” back in May, we were a little unsure about the band’s new direction. Thankfully, the lead single works much better in context, and the rest of the album contains the best sonic landscape the band has put together in a decade.
Everything in its right place
Starting an album on a slow song is something that a lot of bands couldn’t pull off, but at this point, it’s almost expected from The National. Sleep Well Beast begins with one of the haziest songs on the album, “Nobody Else Will Be There”. This song brilliantly leaves the listener in a piano-laden hypnosis, which is shattered as soon as the energetic “Day I Die” begins.
The louder songs on this album are often the highlights, which is certainly the case with “Day I Die”. Though failing relationships are not a new lyrical venture for The National, the marauding melody that pervades this song makes it a strong candidate to be considered a classic in the long run, even in the band’s truly impressive canon.
“Turtleneck” steps up the game even more, immediately cementing itself as one of the most raucous songs the band has ever created. This song proves that even twenty years into the band’s career, they continue to find new ways to evolve and try new things.
That’s not to say they don’t also continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing so well this entire time. Woven between these tracks are the same types of ballads that have always made The National successful, such as “Walk It Back” and “Carin at the Liquor Store”. Structurally, the album tends to directly alternate between fast and slow songs, which works in a very cut-and-dry way. It also makes the album a fairly predictable listen, but since all the songs are good, this doesn’t necessarily ruin the experience.
Beyond pianos and guitars
As The National’s career has progressed, they have slowly drifted away from the guitar in favor of the piano. Ever since Boxer, the ivory keys have been a much better fit for the melancholy tone of their music. Sleep Well Beast brings back the guitars to some degree, although it’s fairly subtle with a couple exceptions. Both “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and “Day I Die” feature recurring distorted riffs, but most of the rockishness comes from Bryan Devendorf’s quick-paced drumming.
An impressive aspect of this album in comparison to previous albums by The National is its willingness to experiment with unconventional instrumentation. The song “Dark Side of the Gym”, beautiful despite its head-scratching title, features a woodwind ending which recalls Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois and significantly changes the tone of the song at the last minute. There’s also quite a bit of experimentation with electronics on tracks like “Sleep Well Beast” and “Empire Line”, and it definitely shows a lot of production talent that this is not a jarring inclusion.
The latter song (as well as “I’ll Still Destroy You”) also brilliantly features a marimba, which is a rare instrument in rock music that adds a perfect homely warmth to these songs. This warmth is something the band manages to maintain throughout the entire album in a way that has been rare for them in recent years, and actually makes this one of the best sounding albums of the year.
Rock music for sad people
As with any album by The National, much of the real magic of Sleep Well Beast is in the lyrics. Songs like “Guilty Party” and “Carin at the Liquor Store” deal with insecurity in the context of a relationship, and how it can end up ruining something that could have been a good thing. “Carin”, for example, tells a story about someone who represses their feelings for someone in order to avoid a bad reaction from that person or their peers.
Of course, many of these tracks also have a political underbelly to them that may not be apparent on first listen. It’s no secret that Matt Berninger and the gang are highly politically involved (having stumped for every Democratic candidate since they became popular), and it’s probably not a coincidence that they now have a song called “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”.
Berninger has described the song “Sleep Well Beast” as a song about wanting to be reclusive in turbulent times. Like the rest of the band, Berninger has children, and chooses to end his album on a message to them. The beast for which he has named his album is the future that the new generation will inherit, and he believes the youth will eventually be a force against those in power. This is a very optimistic ending for an album that can often feel pessimistic. “They’ve got a challenge ahead of them,” Berninger told Pitchfork, “but I feel positive about the future.”
“Day I Die”
“Carin at the Liquor Store”
Recommended if you like:
The Magnetic Fields
Featured image from Paste
Sleep Well Beast
In a time when many of the biggest indie rock acts of the past decade are beginning to lose their steam, The National has come back with their best album in years. The songwriting on ‘Sleep Well Beast’ is at its most consistent point since ‘Boxer’, with the louder tracks being equally as heartbreaking as the slow piano ballads. This album proves that even on their seventh album, The National is just as willing to take risks as they ever have been.