The National (photo by Graham MacIndoe)
Sleep Well Beast
The longest stretch between albums for the National has come to an end with the release of their seventh album, Sleep Well Beast. It comes four years after the band —Matt Berninger, Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner; Bryan Devendorf and Scott Devendorf — released Trouble Will Find Me, but the quintet has kept busy with a variety of other projects, like the 59-track Grateful Dead tribute album, Day of the Dead, or Berninger's side band with Brent Knopf, EL VY.
Sleep Well Beast is an album that deals with relationships, primarily marriage. The songs study the struggles and fears that all married couples face. Berninger wrote the album’s lyrics with help from his wife, the writer and editor Carin Besser. Although he has stated that their marriage is a happy one, the couple still attempted to document challenges in marriage, including their own. In the end, as Berninger told Rolling Stone, the collaboration may very well have made the Berninger and Besser union a stronger one.
“Nobody Else Will Be There” opens the album on an ominous note. The song slowly fades in and, despite the underlining tension, never quite erupts into the frenzy that seems to be coming. Instead, the song thumps darkly by, paced by electronic pulses, and reveals a vague sense of emotional turmoil simmering between a couple.
After the menacing opener, comes “Day I Die,” a rock song that is a fine example of the National’s signature sound. It’s powered by Bryan Devendorf’s unconventionally complex drumming style. Again, a sense of tumult is in the air as Berninger’s vocals hint at a conversation that’s just loud enough to be heard by others through the walls. “I don’t need you," he sings. "Besides I barely ever see you anymore. And when I do it feels you’re only halfway there.”
The actual dissolution of a relationship comes to the fore in “Guilty Party" as Berninger sings: "I say your name/I say I’m sorry/I know it’s not working/I’m no holiday/It’s nobody’s fault/No guilty party/We just got nothing/Nothing left to say."
Electronic instrumentation is used alongside conventional rock instrumentation throughout Sleep Well Beast. “Walk It Back” utilizes spoken word samples and mechanized percussion to great effect while “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” provides the Dessner brothers with an opportunity to stretch out on guitar.
“Born To Beg” deals with death and rebirth, using the changing landscape of New York City as a reference point while “Dark Side Of The Gym” is the album’s love song as Berninger observes: “I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while.” It’s a lovely sentiment that comes before the album’s cerebral title track. At six-and-a-half minutes in length, it’s one of the longest studio songs the National have ever recorded while the frenzied “Turtleneck” might just be their most aggressive. Conversely, “Empire Line” and “I’ll Still Destroy You” are softer melodies with washes of electronics, building against the vigor of Bryan Devendorf’s innovative drumming.
Sleep Well Beast was produced by Aaron Dessner, and mostly recorded in his studio in upstate New York, with co-production assistance by his brother, Bryce, and Berninger. Additional recording sessions took place in Berlin, Paris and Los Angeles.
The National have always created intelligent, sophisticated music, but with Sleep Well Beast they've created a splendidly unpredictable and vital work.
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