The National, Sleep Well Beast | Album Review
The National shine on Sleep Well Beast, their first album in four years. ‘Sleep’ is an adventurous alt-rock LP unafraid of darkness and experimentation.
To some extent, pre-arrival, it was difficult to gauge the direction The National were going with their seventh studio album, Sleep Well Beast. Sleep Well Beast marks the Ohio band’s first album in four years, following Trouble Will Find Me, a respectable affair. The main reason it was tough to gauge was due to the singles, particularly taken out of the context of the album. Question marks are cleared up hearing Sleep Well Beast in its entirety. Ultimately, Sleep Well Beast ends up being an adventurous alternative rock album, unafraid of darkness and experimentation.
“Nobody Else Will Be There”
“Nobody Else Will Be There” initiates Sleep Well Beast radiantly, yet equally enigmatically and intensely. It’s tense, thanks to the expressive vocals of Matt Berninger, the prominence of the piano coupled with background sound effects, and the fractured relationship oriented lyrics. This is a sad kickoff, but at the same time, brilliant and worthwhile.
As a buzz single, “Day I Die” came off respectably without being transcendent or game changing. Contextually, within Sleep Well Beast, “Day I Die” stands out more. Following the tense opener, it’s quickness and rock-oriented sensibility gives the album more spunk. It’s exuberant, yet still showcases pessimism lyrically. “Day I Die” isn’t the crowning achievement, but packs more punch than initially credited.
The pronounced electronic sound of “Walk It Back” makes it stand out instantly. While it is quite modern in this regard, The National don’t completely stray away from the guitars and rock cues. Besides the unique sounds, Berninger remains the star, giving a playful vocal performance. The chorus is catchy, and of course, dark.
“I only take up a little of the collapsing space / I better cut this off / Don’t wanna fuck it up / I only take up a little of the collapsing space / I better cut this off / Don’t wanna fuck up the place / I better walk it back, walk it back.”
“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”
Interestingly, “Walk It Back” serves as a perfect pre-cursor to “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” Berninger described “System” in a Pitchfork interview as, “An abstract portrait of the weird time we’re in.” That explains the odd vibes of the record. On the first verse, lyrically, he’s disappointed and arguably, deceived.
“Maybe I listen more than you think / I can tell that somebody sold you / We said we’ve never let anyone in / We said we’d only die of lonely secrets.”
Such deception continues on throughout the chorus section. Likewise, the second verse finds Berninger surprised by the condition of things, approached like a relationship. As stacked as Sleep Well Beast is, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is arguably the crowning achievement.
“Born to Beg” shifts from weird times to love and relationships. This ranks among the most thoughtful and sweet moments of Sleep Well Beast. There’s a sense of insecurity here. Berninger doesn’t feel worthy of the love he’s been bestowed. Nonetheless, he’s willing to “Do anything /…cry, crawl.” “Turtleneck” is direct contrast to the sweetness. Interestingly, in regards to its harmonic progression, “Turtleneck” has similarities to “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” The assertiveness of the band, led by Berninger, stands out here.
“Empire Line” continues to focus on relationship issues. While clear thematically, it’s uniquely executed, given the reference to a commuter train in relation to the relationship.
“You’ve been sleeping for miles / So what did you see? /… There’s a line that goes all the way from my childhood to you.”
“I’ll Still Destroy You” is filled with unique sounds, and rejuvenates some of the darkness of Sleep Well Beast. It’s not hellish darkness, but there’s a certain humor and self-deprecation.
“Guilty Party” comes off stronger contextually as opposed to its status as a teaser track. The record commences in subtle, restrained fashion. A groove is established early on, but there’s still poise nonetheless. Berninger delivers a tender, beautiful vocal performance, matching the subtlety of the production. “Guilty Party” tackles a failing relationship, asserting no specific blame.
“Carin at the Liquor Store”
Standout “Carin at the Liquor Store” opens with acoustic piano, creating a certain ambience. There are some subtle sounds in the background in addition to the piano-dominated production. Berninger adds his rich, distinct baritone atop the simple backdrop, which eventually expands with more instrumentation. “Carin at the Liquor Store” never grows incredibly overt, always maintaining poise and control. Even so, Berninger infuses more energy as it progresses. The M.O. is love, specifically for his wife, Carin Besser.
Speaking of love, penultimate record “Dark Side of the Gym” excels at it. It’s a natural follow-up – a companion piece if you will – to “Carin at the Liquor Store.” While it’s straightforward for the most part, Berninger still has some fun lyrically.
“I have dreams of anonymous castrati / Singing to us from the trees.”
Fittingly, “Sleep Well Beast” concludes the album. It’s a bizarre, odd, yet intriguing way to cap things off.
All in all, Sleep Well Beast ranks among the most intriguing albums of 2017. As aforementioned, it’s dark and experimental, not to mention accessible, yet at times, more inaccessible. It’s the mark of a true work of art that never ceases to captivate. The music, lyrics, and of course, Berninger’s baritone, rock.
Gems: “Nobody Else Will Be There,” “Day I Die,” “Walk It Back,” “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” “Turtleneck” & “Carin at the Liquor Store”