words by will vincent
Over the course of every record since break-through album Alligator, The National have found new ways to tweak their delicate yet expertly textured sound. Every album has new ambition and adds more pieces to the dark puzzle that is their collective mind and with four years since their last record, Sleep Well Beast truly feels like the full picture of that puzzle.
There are lots of luscious electronic subtleties amongst the thick layering and impressive texturing (some of which is likely owed to Bryce Dessner’s soundtrack composition work) of Sleep Well Beast. Sonically the album still sits in The National’s tried and tested formula of stoic, dark, indie rock but this time around some of their more recent electronic and experimental sensibilities are explored – as can be heard on the likes of “Guilty Party” – but with much more discernment and arguably more effectively than on previous records; elsewhere, on tracks such as “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” and “The Day I Die”, the band hark back to the understated indie anthems of the Alligator era.
At times, the band really push themselves into much louder and faster moments, such as on the Nick Cave-esque “Turtleneck”, but honestly, it feels like the album would have been served better without these more driven, louder, “rock” sections. Other songs offer Berninger’s consummated prose at the forefront of the stage, which allows the instrumentation to work in the same way – in an almost overwhelming and frenetic state of both fear and happiness. Sleep Well Beast feels more and more like a dictation of a picturesque monologue of the hardest periods of our lives. Love is often painful whether you’re healing or departing, but Berninger makes it feel like a grey/blue covered still life, which through careful and intelligent prose is slowly brought into focus.
Conceptually the album is about divorce (and is somewhat of an ode to re-opening the lines of communication with Berniger’s own wife), but it’s also incredibly relatable. Personally, I’ve never been married and consequently have never divorced but I have loved and I have felt the pain of that love slipping, fading; I’ve felt that lost lust, that lack of communication and the inevitable change. The National have always exemplified the war with the inner psyche and the pains (and of course elation) of love in a way that allows you to view it as third party. Even with lyrics that wash over you with a tidal wave of poignant emotions, they’re delivered with such elegance that it almost becomes a type of aural therapy.
Much like with the band’s previous material, this isn’t your standard stories of heartbreak; it’s mature, it’s intimate and it’s real. It’s not just about revealing the cracks in the foundations, it’s about the true fragility of masculinity, the vulnerabilities, and the intricate emotional complexities of modern relationships – all carried under the gown of anxiety, regret and realisation. Lyrics such as “It all, all just catches up to me / It all, all catches up to me all the time” on “Guilty Party”, and “I cannot explain it / Any other, any other way” on “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” create the effigy of a person ruminating and battling with their demons, stuck in the exasperating inner turmoil of trying to explain themselves, to just talk it out. The same anxiety is displayed in a purposeful and direct defencelessness on the albums plaintive opener “Nobody Else Will Be There”, where Berninger admits “My faith is sick and my skin is thin as ever / I need you alone / Goodbyes always take us half an hour / Can’t we just go home?”
Sleep Well Beast focuses on some of the darkest parts on the mind, but in doing so The National have created some of their most touching and impassioned work so far. There are elements that can be traced back across their discography, but this isn’t a reimagining so much as a reinvention of what The National can produce sonically. The instrumentation is more delicate, more meticulously orchestrated, and at times more expansive often allowing emotional candor to reach climatic moments. After a four-year hiatus, several side-projects and six previous records (almost all being worthy of note), most may expect mundanity or perhaps even disappointment, but what you will find on Sleep Well Beast is an album that will likely be remembered as one of the strongest in their back catalogue.
Sleep Well Beast is out Sept 8, via 4AD
Pre-order it here