Album Review: The National – Sleep Well Beast

By on Friday, 1st September 2017 at 1:00 pm
 

Sleep Well Beast coverAmerican indie rock band The National are set to release their seventh studio album next week, following on the critical success of their 2013 LP ‘Trouble Will Find Me’. According to band member and producer Aaron Dessner, the new album has been in the works for most of the intervening four years. “We didn’t feel like rushing it,” Dessner says of the new album, titled ‘Sleep Well Beast’, which is in some ways the band’s most expansive record to date and in some ways their most poignantly intimate.

Though the band are geographically spread out over five different cities these days, they made a deliberate effort to come together periodically for the writing and recording of ‘Sleep Well Beast’. “When we all lived in Brooklyn we rarely did these kinds of week-long sessions” says bassist Scott Devendorf. “This time we got together for long stretches, just to mess around and experiment without deadlines or distractions.” The result is an eclectic sonic mix of synths and drum machines, prominent guitar solos and piano melodies, and composer/guitarist Bryce Dessner’s always graceful orchestral ornamentation.

Lyrically, vocalist and songwriter Matt Berninger describes the songs on ‘Sleep Well Beast’ as “trying to come clean about things you’d rather not” in the context of long-term relationships. He tries to make light of his heavy thematic material, saying “Some of it’s about marriage, some of it’s about my relationship with Aaron and the band, some of it’s about train tracks and dancing.” But it’s the romantic narrative, with lyrics co-written by Berninger’s wife Carin Besser, that ultimately dominates the album. From a listener’s perspective, it reads like a very public form of couples therapy, where neither party shies away from intense self-scrutiny or brutal cross-examination.

‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ opens the album slowly and tentatively, with Berninger’s rough vocals slurring over an introspective piano melody in the questioning lines “you said we’re not so tied together / what did you mean?” The musical arrangement is lingering and almost aimless, much like the couple in question, for whom Berninger sings “goodbyes always take us half an hour / can’t we just go home?”

By contrast, recent single ‘Day I Die’ is much more immediately striking and could easily be the album’s biggest radio hit. Berninger’s wry vocal delivery alludes to feelings of emotional distance before delivering the veiled threat, “young mothers love me / even ghosts of girlfriends call from Cleveland / they will meet me any time and anywhere”. The scansion of his lyrics creates a deliberately disconnected stream-of-consciousness effect that is amplified by the unrelenting drum rhythm and jarring guitar riffs punctuating the verses.

Berninger’s vocals are at their strongest in lead single ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’, whose lyrical undertones vacillate between personal and political in a stark reflection of current American society. He shifts from dark, ominous tones in the verse lines “maybe I listen more than you think / and I can tell that somebody sold you” to the higher, anguished pitch of the refrain “I can’t explain it any other, any other way”. Likewise, the musical arrangement here is clear and easily accessible, with a ringing keyboard melody and catchy guitar riffs anchoring the overall sound.

Those moments of clarity balance the murkiness of the album’s middle section. ‘Born to Beg’ wallows in a fog of co-dependence, as its classical piano underlay fights through a morass of synth sounds and computerised drum beats that function to keep the swell of emotion at arms length. ‘Turtleneck’ is harsh and jarring, almost maniacally sinister as Berninger intones “there’s something about her eyes / I think her roots are rotten / this must be the reason she wears her hair up in knots”.

Hollow drum machine and synth sounds underscore a pervasive feeling of emptiness in ‘Empire Line’, where Berninger’s wintery imagery creates a stark emotional analogy: “you’ve been sleeping for miles / so what did you see? / here the sky’s been falling, white flowers / and there’s ice in all the trees”. Bryce Dessner’s exquisite woodwind and brass embellishments on ‘Guilty Party’ are among the most purely beautiful moments on the album, accompanying the heartwrenching lyrics “another year gets away / another summer of love / I don’t know why I care / we miss it every summer”.

Piano ballad ‘Carin at the Liquor Store’ is stark and deliberately simple, its straightforward arrangement clearing the way for some deep soul-searching: “it’s gonna be different after tonight / you’re gonna see me in a different light / it’s a a foregone conclusion”. The softer, mellower sounds of ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ find Berninger crooning soothingly “I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while”, ahead of the resolve and re-commitment in final eponymous track ‘Sleep Well Beast’.

‘Sleep Well Beast’, the album, squarely and unflinchingly focuses on the dark feelings and deep individual vulnerabilities that inevitably come into play over the course of a long-term relationship. Some of the tracks are sonically overwhelming, which was probably the intent given their lyrical content, and some of them stretch almost agonizingly thin. But the album overall is conceptually cohesive, combining complex, richly-textured musical ideas with an equally complex and multi-faceted expanse of emotions. The delicate brutality of ‘Sleep Well Beast’ is expertly conveyed by the high calibre of its songwriting and musical arrangements, which are nothing less than exactly what we’ve come to expect from The National, as their brilliant career progresses through its second decade.

8.5/10

The National’s seventh studio album ‘Sleep Well Beast’ will be released on the 8th of September on Beggars imprint 4AD. The band will play an already sold-out tour of Ireland and the UK in September; you can find all their upcoming live dates on their official Web site. TGTF’s complete previous coverage of The National is back through here.

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