At some point in the last five years, the National became indie rock royalty. There was no formal ceremony per se, no keys to the executive washroom granted, but an unmistakable shift in both acceptance and expectations occurred. It took only two songs, both released in advance of the band’s seventh album Sleep Well Beast, to understand why.
“Carin at the Liquor Store” recalls the genuine joy of singer Matt Berninger meeting his wife. “ I can’t wait to see you” he sings after admitting he’d prostrate himself at her feet. The piano tiptoes in sad, heavy ellipses. Berninger’s claim that love is a foregone conclusion sounds like it could just as easily soundtrack a suicide.
“Day I Die” is a spirited rocker. Drummer Bryan Devendorf’s toms thunder with abandon (he’s long been the group’s secret weapon) and Berninger contemplates getting high and finding oblivion in the footsteps of ancestors. He sounds positively galvanized by the thought of his own passing.
Both songs are poignant, urgent, and inscrutable — a gorgeous dirge and rundown anthem. After 18 years, they’re perfect prototypes of the brooding beauty the National has become known for, almost workmanlike in their singularity. As the saying goes, these are songs that could only have been made by the National. And, strangely, as evidenced by the rest of Sleep Well Beast, these are the only songs that the National make.
The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Cincinnati quintet’s four-album run, bookended by 2005’s classic Alligator and 2013’s lovely, morose Trouble Will Find Me, is practically unassailable. Each record was distinctive yet daring, artful but increasingly well-received as the band’s admirers grew in number. It’s the sort of sustained greatness achieved by very few of their 21st century peers (probably just Radiohead and Spoon.) And like listeners of those bands, the National’s fans have rightfully come to not only bank upon excellence but also forgive lesser efforts (say, a King of Limbs or Transference), because like sex and pizza, even when a National album is “bad,” it’s still pretty good.
What this all means to say is that Sleep Well Beast isn’t a mulligan by any stretch. It’s a satisfying rock record with a dizzying assortment of synths, marimba, chirps, horns, whirs, ghostly voices, sonic detritus and strings. It’s defiantly digital without sacrificing an ounce of emotion, a trick Spoon tried to pull off (but fell short of) on Hot Thoughts. The National’s co-opting of drum machine beats, looped blips, and keyboards is so seamless that a song like Sleep Well Beast’s title track, when you think about, could fit right in with Radiohead’s Kid A for its fractured electronics, inventiveness, and ambient deconstruction.
But we barely blink an eye, because Sleep Well Beast is the still the National doing what they do best. Being morose, mopey, self-reflective, urgent, and utterly relatable. Berninger is older (the entire band is now in their 40’s, in fact) and sounds it — his cavernous baritone feels more authoritative and weathered then ever. It lends credence to his missives on wounded relationships and the sort of late-night, wanton self-introspection that starts with a shot of Jamieson and invariably ends up with four-finger pours.
In past songs, Berninger has given real names to numerous female persona (Rachel, Karen, Ada, Jenny, and more), but never have those characters felt so flesh-and-blood as on Sleep Well Beast. The album’s second half is addressed directly to Berninger’s wife Carin Besser, including “Guilty Party,” a meditative elegy for a crumbling marriage that the couple co-wrote as an alternative form of couples therapy. “I say your name/ I say I’m sorry/ I know it’s not working/ I’m no holiday.” Acts of contrition are seldom this staggering or beautiful.
The National remain profoundly political on their most impassioned songs. The thrashing, punk cacophony of “Turtleneck” climaxes when Berninger pole-axes Trump for sending morning tweets from the Presidential crapper. “This must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for, oh no!” “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is a compact, clamorous slice of modern discontent whose war drums and emergency alarm guitars codify the song’s wordy, enigmatic title into a feeling more imperative and concrete. Berninger concurs: “I can’t explain it/ Any other way.”
As the focus of Berninger’s songs has become less abstract, his lyricism has turned more conventional. Historically, he’s superb at capturing sensations of emptiness and malaise with odd, vivid turns of phrases: “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders” from “Mr. November” and “You can say that we invented a summer lovin’ torture party” from “Lemonworld.” On Sleep Well Beast, the disquietude is there but it’s less surreal. “Forget it, nothing I change changes anything” he says on “Walk It Back,” sounding more weary than clever.
As scary as Berninger comes across on a song title like “I’ll Still Destroy You,” his threat pales in comparison to the dysfunctional shit he’s said in the past. Remember, this is a guy who once sang from the perspective of a self-recriminating husband, confessing to his wife: “I was afraid/ I’d eat your brains/ ’Cause I’m evil.” It was one of High Violet’s catchiest choruses, too. All this goes to say, the National has been frighteningly good for so long, they’ve run the risk of becoming ordinary.
Sleep Well Beast’s most memorable moments still employ an element of surprise, and not just with electronic instruments. “Dark Side of the Gym” is a wholesome ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place at a 1950’s junior prom, complete with Berninger’s promise “I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while,” until it ends with an effulgent major chord and a startling vision: “I have dreams of anonymous castrati/ Singing to us from the trees.” A run-of-the-mill love song becomes something far more disturbing and unforgettable.
Sleep Well Beast is the old feeling of being ecstatic and heartbroken cast over new sounds, a well-worn narrative Berninger and band mates have all but made their calling card. Their ability to render this condition so fluently strikes me not so much as a choice, but a certain compulsion, the likes of which Berninger requires these darkly beautiful hymns to exorcise. It’s not that he wouldn’t have it any other way, but rather, he couldn’t let go of these oddities if he tried.