Everytime the Brooklyn-based band The National releases a new album, a collective sense of anticipation affects music writers, readers, and listeners. With the emerging of few singles, while approaching the release date, it’s usually difficult to have a clear vision of what the new bunch of songs will sound altogether. Sleep Well Beast, out worldwide on September 8th via 4AD, represents a great example of this case, being the most variegated and layered The National’s record probably since Alligator, their 2005 break-out album.
The band recorded their new effort in the Hudson Valley, Los Angeles, Paris, and Berlin and each phase of the process had a distinct purpose. This modus operandi made the recording’s time span longer than their previous ones, it allowed Aaron and Bryce Dessner, the two main writers, to compose a multifarious group of tracks and enabled them to add new instrumentation to the band’s already deep arsenal. Especially the collaboration with members of the Paris Orchestra apparently played a big role in the overall sounding, proceeding to make Sleep Well Beast one of the denser and more solid records we’ve heard recently.
Now at their seventh studio album, The National surely chose a more turbulent approach than the one they had in the past, integrating unfamiliar elements into their typical flow. A heavy use of drum machines by Bryan Devendorf, which was uncharted territory for him, and the complementary work of percussionist Jason Treuting, who worked with Steve Reich among others, never emerges pointless or vain.
Opening the album we find “Nobody Else Will Be There” a downtempo melancholic song with Matt Berninger singing about alcohol, New York and the need to be alone with a lover: classic lyrics for him, but always majestically written and sung. “The Day I Die” will be one of the new anthems of The National’s live performances with its galloping pace and a great bridge that builds tension before the last refrains. Fifteen years into the band’s career, the ease of the transition between a verse and a chorus remains always remarkable.
Dessner and partners start introducing new aspects from here on, putting an old-fashioned synth igniting the third track “Walk It Back”, a song that also features a rare political spoken word moment taken from an interview with Karl Rove, a former consultant for George Bush. When asked about this matter Matt said: “I don’t think of one song as being a relationship song and one being a politics song. It’s one big giant bowl of stuff for me”. His ability to assemble more themes into the lyrics makes them interesting an less intelligible than we think at first listenings. Indeed, it’s the repeated listenings that are revealing new facets of songs like “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” and “Turtleneck“:Berninger’s peculiar verses seem almost off tempo in “System” but they work as a great expedient to highlight Dessner’s best guitar work here; in “Turtleneck” the band appears extremely free and flowing with no restriction, from the all over the place guitars and drumming to the lyrics that include fashion, political and sex references. Sleep Well Beast offers a lighter attitude towards drama than High Violet or Trouble Will Find Me, it’s almost like they are saying to us that at the end of the day everything can be faced and we can overcome anything in life. “Empire Line” is the quintessential example of this image, especially when Matt sings:
And I want what I want
And I want everything
I want everything
Can’t you find a way?
Can’t you find a way?
Berninger has mastered his lyrical work using his obsession for acquaintances, liquors, and places to create splendid mundane portraits of common people’s life. “Guilty Party” and the piano lead ballad “Carin At The Liquor Store” were already revealed as a single ahead of the official release and inside the album tracklist, they don’t lose their powerful and solemn feeling. “Guilty Party” takes regal strides with short, sentimental verses. The great drum work contradicts the trumpet and the keyboard, creating a well-crafted dialogue. Arrangements wise, the closing trio composed by “Carin”, “Dark Side of the Gym” and the title track “Sleep Well Beast”, is the skinnier part of the record, I would also argue that some of the inserts in “Dark Side” and “Sleep Well Beast” are fairly far from the emotional appeal of the rest of the album, which otherwise remains very cohesive.
Despite lacking one or two unforgettable songs, Sleep Well Beast is surely a success for the band and a long step forward from Trouble Will Find Me because of its much richer variety and a revived passion for experimentation, avoiding the abuse of their usual winning formula.
Ultimately The National at their seventh record are certainly in great shape, still capable of inciting a creative process while communicating one another without risking to fall into mediocrity any time soon.