The National – Sleep Well Beast

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The National bring us into their world with musical restraint and stories we relate to.

Restraint is The National’s greatest strength. The way Matt Berninger can paint such vivid pictures while revealing so little remains astounding. And the emotional intensity the band can generate while rarely raising above a dull roar.

The National haven’t necessarily changed that approach on Sleep Well Beast, their seventh album, but, in many ways, it does feel like they’ve loosened up. The almost unwieldy guitar breaks in ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ add a bit of wildness rarely heard in the band’s past recordings.

 

Berninger’s defiant, snarky outbursts in ‘Day I Die’ seem like those of a man about to fly off the handle. And both singer and band let loose in ‘Turtleneck’, a short-burst that Berninger admits is his physical response to the election of US president Donald Trump.

But it’s the nuances of relationships Berninger reveals that are most striking. He speaks of short but powerful moments between two people that feel profound, despite their innocuous appearance.

Organising secret meetings in the staircases of parties (‘Nobody Else Will Be There’), holding his partner while watching a band (‘Born To Beg’) and a cold interaction after years of closeness (‘Dark Side of the Gym’) – the relatability of these moments makes them all the more powerful.

It’s not an album of great celebration. It’s an album packed with irresolute feeling and emotions. Its songs examine both the stasis of life and relationships, as well as the consistent uneasiness a so-called comfortable life offers. It’s coming from a place of immense privilege, but then again, so is most of the band’s audience.

There are a couple of non-human relationships explored through the record that are equally intriguing. The changing face and feel of New York City – through seasons (‘Nobody Else Will Be There’) and through decades (‘Born To Beg’) – is a recurrent theme.

Berninger’s frequently references smoking pot as well. He eludes to using it to drown out the wider world on ‘Walk It Back’ (‘Until everything is less insane, I’m mixing weed with wine’) and, conversely, sings about it illuminating personal issues on ‘Day I Die’ (‘Let's just get high enough to see our problems’).

 

His lyrics are so intriguing that it’s easy to take the rest of the band for granted. But it’s the tension of the music created by Aaron and Bryce Dessner that add so much weight to Berninger’s words.

The band are still as polished and flawless as always, with every note and texture perfectly in place through the album’s 57 minutes. The way a song like ‘Empire Line’ just simmers away so unobtrusively but remains so engaging is testament to their judicious use of sound to highlight their vocalist’s words.

Sleep Well Beast is no great leap forward for The National, but it’s far from a step back either. The band play to their strengths and remain true to what has made them so beloved. Given it’s been over four years since their last record, a lot of people are going to appreciate that greatly. 

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