When you talk about a new album by The National, there’s a few concessions you make. You’re not really stressing sound and progression but you do detail the mood and intensity. They’re a band of Midwestern men, two sets of brothers, and a guy that has a brother (as the excellent 2014 documentary Mistaken For Strangers shows), that define themselves by both their creative and personal tensions. They progress in inches, not leaps. Well, that is until now. Sleep Well Beast feels somewhat like a sonic redefinition.
While each record from 2005’s Alligator felt like a deeper descent into an emotional and sonic black hole, there’s an electricity that runs through their latest that feels like a band reacting against their darker impulses. Opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” creeps up on you – Berninger sings like he’s telling a secret, backed by nocturnal percussion and string swells. It’s a beautiful, but odd opener, as the pulsating “Day I Die” kicks into gear. The balance feels off The band experiments with synths and guitar solos all over the place – including the ripshit “Turtleneck”. The National have not made a song that has let Berninger go this loose on record since “Abel”. The guitars are nervy and suspenseful. It’s going to sound awesome live.
The three song run of “Guilty Party,” “Carin at the Liquor Store,” and “Dark Side of the Gym” are some of the most gorgeously staggering songs that the band has put together about love and relationships. “Guilty Party” talks about a failing relationship, while “Carin at the Liquor Store” is a piano ballad that’s apparently about guitarist Aaron Dessner’s mother-in-law that passed away during recording. “Dark Side of the Gym” has ‘wedding song’ written all over it, Berninger, evokes Renaissance imagery as he sings in duet with Irish singer Lisa Hannigan: “I have dreams of anonymous castrati/Singing to us from the trees/I have dreams of a first man and a first lady/Singing to us from the sea“. It’s language ripe for a first dance.
Despite these high points – there are some moments that don’t feel right. The intro to “I’ll Still Destroy You” feels a little out of place, perhaps like an Amnesiac-era Radiohead outtake, as well as the first single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, has a lot going on – keys, guitar stabs and some synth hits. It’s also got sickly-sweet guitar solo which is the best part of the song, mainly because they are rarely, if ever heard on National albums.
At its core, Sleep Well Beast is a very good album by The National. The band backed itself against the wall with 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, hewing a little too close to the sound they’d cultivated with their previous three albums. It’s the sound of a band taking chances with an established formula, spreading out and showing that after nearly twenty years together they can find ways to create something deeply engaging.
Is it the album to start a new fan with? No. Is it a worthy addition to their catalog? Certainly. They have consistently made records that try to top one another. Perhaps they have yet to create their best. If anything, Sleep Well Beast shows that all bets are off. Keep listening.
Sleep Well Beast is out now on 4AD.