Review: The National’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’ is their most radical album in years
On "Born to Beg," a highlight off The National's seventh album Sleep Well Beast, Matt Berninger takes a second to sing about the city he moved to from Ohio before forming this band 18 years ago. "New York is older and changing its skin again / It dies every ten years, and then it begins again." With beloved landmarks closing, rent prices going up, demographics changing, and local icons moving (like Berninger, who relocated to LA in 2015), there's been chatter about the city's death, but that lyric takes a wise and hopeful look at it. New York is ever-changing, but it's not over. It's still like no other place in the world.
There's a comparison to be made here to The National themselves. They found their sound as we now know it on their 2005 breakthrough Alligator, and each subsequent album has seen the band changing its skin in one way or another, without ever diverting from the distinct sound they established on that album. Boxer was more refined and toned down. High Violet aimed for the stars, with their most accessible and perfectionist material yet. Trouble Will Find Me felt like a reaction to High Violet. If High Violet was The National at their biggest, Trouble sounded more relaxed, like they were just writing the songs they wanted to write and not aiming for more stardom. It established that The National didn't need to write songs for anyone but themselves, and the results would still be brilliant. It opened the doors for them to take four years before Sleep Well Beast -- their longest break between albums -- and make some of the most radical changes to their post-Alligator sound yet, while still not breaking its highly unique mold.
The two most recent albums saw Aaron and Bryce Dessner using electric guitars to create atmosphere, often manipulating them to the point of sounding like strings or keyboards, which makes it kind of radical how traditionally rock much of their playing on Sleep Well Beast is. They've got real-deal riffs and a real-deal guitar solo on lead single "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness," which also has the album's most immediately satisfying chorus. On a similar note, Bryan Devendorf has emerged as one of indie rock's most recognizable drummers thanks to a style that's often upbeat and driving but rarely uses standard rock beats, which makes the frequent use of electronic drums on Sleep Well Beast another curveball. They show off a nice blend of the old and the new on "I'll Still Destroy You." Starting off as a glitch pop song with no live drums at all, it turns into classic National about halfway through and ends in a freeform jam with sinister orchestral arrangements and some of Bryan Devendorf's most mighty skinsmanship.
What makes the album so interesting and unpredictable is that there's no simple narrative you can reduce it to. It's got those aforementioned electronic drums and something close to synthpop with "Walk It Back" (which is also home of this very quotable line: "Until everything is less insane, I'm mixing weed with wine"), but you can't call it their "electronic" album. Not when it's got "Turtleneck," a hard-edged song that rocks like no National song has ever rocked (they've had aggressive songs like "Mr. November" and "Available" but nothing in the manic spirit of "Turtleneck"). The drastically new-sounding songs like "Walk it Back" and "Turtleneck" are balanced out by a handful of more traditional National songs. "Day I Die" is a heartbreaking, lyrically detailed look at a marriage in trouble that follows the formula of previous driving rock songs like "Sea of Love" and "Lit Up." "Carin at the Liquor Store" is a show-stopping piano ballad in the tradition of "Fake Empire" that looks back on an imperfect love with some truly uplifting melodies.
"Carin at the Liquor Store" is named after Matt's wife Carin Besser, who Matt co-wrote the lyrics to Sleep Well Beast with (not the first time Carin contributed to The National). He told Rolling Stone last year: "I'm happily married, and but it's hard, marriage is hard and my wife and I are writing the lyrics together about our own struggles." He clarifies in the interview that his marriage is healthy, so the more tragic songs like "Day I Die" read more as about Matt's fears than as autobiographical. Nearly every song is about relationship struggles, but Sleep Well Beast isn't exactly a concept album. The line between what parts are about Matt and Carin's real life and what parts aren't often blurs, which is fair to expect from good art anyway. Sleep Well Beast is the result of artists excelling at their craft, not necessarily a window into the authors' lives. And since Matt does say his marriage is healthy -- perhaps due to the therapy that writing this album with his wife provided -- Sleep Well Beast may just be one of this year’s finest answers to the question "How do you write good songs when you’re happy?"
The National will officially release Sleep Well Beast this Friday (9/8) via 4AD, but they're performing the album in full for NPR Music's First Listen Live today (9/5) and streaming it live. Tune in HERE at 8 PM Eastern. UPDATE: The stream happened, and if you missed it, you can listen to the archive.
UPDATE 2: You can now stream the album:
The National are also playing a free acoustic show at the Apple Store in Williamsburg on Wednesday (9/6), Colbert on Thursday (9/7), and another full-album show at NYC's Bowery Ballroom on Friday, which will stream live on SiriusXMU. The band's proper tour includes a much larger NYC show on October 6 at Forest Hills Stadium with Daughter (buy tickets or win them).
Listen to three more songs from the new album, and some live videos of new songs from their full-album shows at Basilica Hudson in July, below: