Release Date: Sep 8, 2017
Record label: 4AD
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
The National return with a sprawling and adventurous new album that holds up to their legendary career. The National’s four-album run beginning with Alligator and ending with Trouble Will Find Me represent a distinct era for the band. Lyrical themes were clever, dark, cryptic, and sometimes humorous. It was clear however that each album cycle generally represented times in Matt Berninger’s life (and perhaps of the other band members) from early twenties to older ages.
“It’s called Alligator. You’ll like it. It’s pretty cool,” Carrie said to me as we were closing up shop at Blockbuster. “Come to the party tonight, I’ll have it on.” The year was 2005, and I didn’t want to listen to Alligator or go over to Carrie’s house for a party.
Liking The National has somehow become a parody of itself— a bunch of white dudes that make sad music about loneliness and growing up somehow seems so. . .
In a year stockpiled with records by Sad White Men – Robin Pecknold and Dave Longstreth by way of Adam Granduciel and [sighs] Josh Tillman; fuck, even James Murphy has contributed some bars to this most bourgeois of posse cuts – Matt Berninger returns after his four-year spell on the sidelines as the indisputable MVP. Yet, for all the backhanded compliments about consistency, there’s been a growing dissatisfaction among fans and critics over the band’s proclivity for uniformity, their home comforts of low to mid-tempo indie rock with overcast metaphors spiralling around dying, dead romances; and lots and lots of eyebrows-cocked sadness..
B y now, most listeners will probably have a take on the National, originally out of Brooklyn via Cincinnati, now residing as far apart as LA and Copenhagen. Two pairs of multi-instrumentalist brothers and a lanky, lugubrious frontman, they deal in literate rock that presents at first as artily sombre, and eventually as one of the most nuanced 21st-century iterations of what used to be known as .
Here’s a handy tag cloud of adjectives the National have no doubt grown to despise: Restrained, controlled, intimate, slow-burning, patient, grand. No doubt, too, that their live shows can feel like frantic exorcisms of all of these respectable, middlebrow signifiers: Onstage, Matt Berninger is a kind of yuppie Dionysus, downing bottles of red wine, tearing at his collar, pushing through the crowd, shouting off-mic. The contrast between the two versions of himself, the staid crooner and the wild-eyed rocker, felt like the band’s ace in the hole: It meant they could play stadiums and soundtrack scenes of snow falling in sedate indie films about unhappy New England families..
After a four-year hiatus – well spent being creative on an impressive range of side-projects – The National are back. And while, OK, they were never exactly ‘Alright’-era-Supergrass carefree young scamps, the passing of that time and the accumulation of some of the cares of age appear to have permeated their souls and seeped even deeper into their weighty, often emotionally-dense, frequently plangent music. Matt Berninger’s words are still oblique, allusive rather than straightforwardly anecdotal, but a thread of discontent, of teetering-on-the-edge-of-breakup, runs through the album. “I don’t need you, I don’t need you… .
Sleep Well Beast begins with a troubling affirmation. "You said we're not so tied together / What did you mean?, lead singer/songwriter Matt Berninger whispers with a raspy coo that equally unnerves and soothes. It's an inquisitive opening statement that should sound familiar to anyone who's kept up with The National's perpetual unease, where the answers are implicit rather than explicit.
The National's hauntingly side-eyed 2007 ode to nationalism, "Fake Empire," has gotten big responses at their recent shows, unsurprisingly. Yet the Ohio-bred indie-rock achievers aren't a political band per se. Frontman Matt Berninger generally turns his brooding baritone toward the dark end of relationships – with one's self, a lover, a society – backed by a band that can sometimes suggest Wilco channeling Joy Division.
Over the decades, artists have made concept albums about everything from the state of Michigan to the life of Gaudí to the Ravenskill Rebel Militia’s revolt against the rule of Emperor Nafaryus of the dystopian Great Northern Empire of the Americas in 2285 (US prog-metal band Dream Theater’s 2016 quadruple album The Astonishing, if you’ve got two hours and 10 minutes to spare). But few artists have alighted on a topic quite as tricky as that which drives the National’s seventh studio album. Virtually every song on Sleep Well Beast concerns itself with the bleak minutiae of middle age: feelings of regret, relationships becoming careworn and – especially – unignorable cracks appearing in a marriage..
Since The National released sixth album ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ in 2013, it’s fair to say the world has found nothing but trouble. Follow-up ‘Sleep Well Beast’ continues the theme, asking on the rollocking ‘Day I Die’, “the day I die – where will we be?”. In a bunker, sheltering from a Trumpian nuclear war at this rate. It’s all very 2017.
Across their first six studio albums, The National have settled into a pretty wonderful stride. Masters of dark introspection flecked with the odd anthemic thrust, Matt Berninger and co do downbeat indie rock better than any others. .
Scroll through this year’s record release schedule, and you could be mistaken for having a little early 2000s deja vu. Already we.
Sleep Well Beast, the seventh album by the National, begins quite like the band’s 2007 breakthrough Boxer. That album’s opening number, “Fake Empire”, awakens with a repetitive piano figure that builds to an anthemic yet soft chorus. It’s then followed with a rollicking drum beat by Bryan Devendorf, the heartbeat of the song “Mistaken for Strangers”, to date one of the National’s most uptempo numbers.
For those already familiar with The National’s back catalogue, Sleep Well Beast may prove somewhat of a surprising listen. For the casual fan; don’t go in expecting the accessible alt.rock of Abel, Slow Show or Sea Of Love. There are the subtlest of nods to old songs (a lyrical hint to Val Jester, the glitchy start of Nobody Else Will Be There sounding reminiscent of 29 Years) but this album marks a new direction for them. The band had said, prior to the record’s release, that this would be their most miserable album yet.
There’s something sinister swimming around beneath the surface of The National’s seventh album. It’s not the spiders crowding the basement of Matt Berninger’s brain on the New York band’s 2005 song “Secret Meeting”; it isn’t the killers who came calling on 2007’s “Gospel”; and it’s not the swarm of bees who dumped the lead singer in the Midwest on 2010’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio”. Whatever’s skulking around down there is more subtle, more bitter, and more venomous than any demon The National have wrestled before..
Throughout their sixteen years making music, The National have been one of the most rewarding bands to follow. Each of their six albums to date, encapsulate a new chapter in the life of the semi-autobiographical character that singer/lyricist Matt Berninger has created; always in linear fashion. On the band.
This dichotomy, between misery and catharsis, has long been at the heart of this band’s work, arguably the strongest of the currents which ripple and tug throughout each National record. Yet never before has it been foregrounded quite so brazenly as it is here; although Sleep Well Beast is hardly The National’s most physical, visceral record – indeed, it may perhaps be their most restrained in such respects – much of this album can be read as an exercise in confronting personal and societal darknesses and transposing them into work which, if not exactly effervescent with hope, at least manages to transcend mere navel-gazing and push off into clearer, more open waters..
The National haven’t always been the grimly monochromatic, clenched-jaw balladeers that they are today. The band’s early albums were eclectic and occasionally upbeat. Which is why it’s odd that their (admittedly few) recent attempts to break out of the self-imposed, sulking mold they fit themselves into since Boxer have often felt awkward and forced.
You disappoint me, America. As a non-citizen, your political situation bums me out to no end. November 8, 2016 was a miserable night, and the ensuing months have been about as bad as one would have cared to imagine. One silver lining it felt reasonable to hold out hope for was an uptick in righteous, political protest songs.
Matt Berninger, lead singer and songwriter of indie-rock titans The National, is something of a contradiction. He’s made a career of channelling malaise and misery into something bleakly beautiful, yet on stage he exerts a confidence and presence that can feel at odds with the band’s introspective songcraft. Each of their previous six studio albums has managed to capture this dichotomy, but none as effectively as their superb seventh LP, ‘Sleep Well Beast’.
The National have always been an emotionally heavy listen that resonates so differently with me now, in my 30's, than they did in my immature 20's. It's only now I can fully appreciate the depth, understanding and intensity of this band and Sleep Well Beast is a perfect example why. The band's seventh full-length documents, in detail, lead singer Matt Berninger's life being married to co-writer Carin Bresser, and what transpires is an angsty, real-world behind-the-scenes view into the ups and downs of such a commitment.
To indie rock fans, the National represent a very specific brand of cosmopolitan melancholy — despairing, yet tasteful. It's a worldview which either resonates deeply with listeners, strikes them as indulgent and self-pitying, or bores them to tears. On "Sleep Well Beast," the band's first album in four years, the National stretch out of their comfort zone both musically and lyrically, yet no amount of reinvention can disguise the sad-sack heart beating at its core.
Many of the characters embodied by Matt Berninger on The National’s latest album seem to be going through the motions, men who have reached a point of stagnation in their respective lives even as the people they cherish the most naturally proceed or recede away from them. The band that he fronts refuses to get caught in the same trap on Sleep Well Beast, forging bold new ground without losing their identity, which, for a band as established as this one, is nothing short of miraculous..