By Kieran Cannon (@kiercannon)
‘Taking a break’ is a notion that carries a sense of inevitability. Often a vague suggestion with an indefinite timeline, its utterance appears to spell doom for many ill-fated relationships despite the best intentions. Eager to prove otherwise, The National have spent time apart after wrapping up Trouble Will Find Me. While not an official decision per se, all five members have taken a breather from the tumultuous life of touring to spend time with family and embark on other pursuits; enigmatic frontman and famed wine guzzler Matt Berninger, for example, teamed up with Ramona Falls founder Brent Knopf to bring indie project EL VY to life.
The band have spoke of fraught relationships in the past, predominantly down to the differing musical philosophies of minimalist Matt and trailblazer Aaron Dessner, but this newfound sense of creative freedom appears to have granted the Cincinnati-originating outfit a new lease of life. Relocating from Aaron’s garage to his rural Long Pond recording studio has proven an ideal congregation point for the now-geographically dispersed five-piece, who can come and go as they please. One significant bonus is the soothing effect its scenic surroundings appears to exert on the recording process. “It’s hard to be a dick when you look out the window and there’s this tranquil pond”, explains Matt.
This chilled-out, bohemian approach to songwriting has culminated in The National’s most exploratory output to date. Perhaps in keeping with that ethos, Sleep Well Beast surely ranks as one of the year’s worst kept secrets. While other artists tend to keep their cards close to their chests, fans have instead been treated to a myriad of opportunities to hear new material, ranging from a steady influx of single releases to numerous live performances debuting certain tracks. The first of those singles, The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, offered a good insight into what could be expected to emerge from the Long Pond studio. In stark contrast to the opulent guitars of Trouble Will Find Me, sharp, jutting riffs appear at the forefront augmented, much to everyone’s surprise, by a guitar solo; a sign of stylistic change towards a more freeform approach. Whereas in the past every carefully-layered texture, every chord change felt calculated and precise, this record feels notably more off-the-cuff in nature. In hindsight, “we’re in a different kind of thing now” becomes prophetic.
Upon first listening, Sleep Well Beast immediately strikes as an album of extremities. Raucous tracks like the rip-roaring Turtleneck occupy one end of the scale, an outburst not heard since the Alligator era. Sung with Nick Cave-esque abandon and strewn with dueling guitars, this signals in no uncertain terms that the rulebook has well and truly been thrown out the window. Within tracks such as this Bryan Devendorf stakes his claim as one of indie’s pre-eminent drummers: his driving rhythms and grasp of unusual time signatures form a significant basis of most tracks, controlling the flow with surprising nuance.
On Day I Die he demonstrates his abilities yet again, kicking off one of the highlights of the album with a blistering drum intro. Relentlessly uptempo and featuring guitar licks reminiscent of The Cure, themes of marital affairs are navigated with reference-laden lyrics. Matt Berninger boasts that, “Young mothers love me, even ghosts of / Girlfriends call from Cleveland“, although he’s still clearly more concerned about the no-mans land his current relationship occupies, struggling to understand where things stand. During the bridge, further context is given to “great uncle Valentine Jester“, a character visited previously and, as it happens, someone who Berninger finds himself sharing a lot in common with, particularly when he gets “a little punchy with the vodka“.
There’s no doubt the subject matter is more introspective than ever before and these domestic issues are explored in customary fashion. While there’s an abundance of esoteric wordplay, the frontman’s unique songcraft is equally able to deliver upfront, candid lyrics. In Carin at the Liquor Store, an ode to his wife and intermittent co-writer (it’s pronounced Cah-RYN, god), crypticism is eschewed in favour of sincerity. On the previous iteration, Karen, he was unabashedly defiant whereas this time round he appears more reflective: “It’s gonna be different after tonight / You’re gonna see me in a different light” Accompanied by tender piano and an achingly beautiful guitar solo, this slow-burner is one of the more conventional songs on the album but it delivers volumes of raw emotion.
Following on, another straightforward ballad appears in the form of Dark Side of the Gym. Noticeably more mellow and laid back than Carin, it showcases the Dessner brothers’ willingness to experiment with electronic sounds. While electronic influences tinge some songs, they dominate others such as I’ll Still Destroy You. Cryptic verses about self-medication are sung with a distinct Tom Waits inflection as several narratives converge towards the end, amounting to something of a revelation. As his overindulgence in substances begins to spiral out of control, everything is placed into perspective. “Put your heels against the wall / I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you” ponders Berninger, an allusion to worries about spending time away from his daughter and missing out on her growing up.
The album’s titular closing track, Sleep Well Beast, ranks as one of the most unorthodox offerings in the band’s entire back catalogue. Berninger’s voice is almost a whisper as his characteristic baritone reaches its lowest pitch in a wonderfully dreamy six and a half minutes of glitchy lo-fi guitars, haunting backing vocals and programmed drums which ebb and flow throughout. One minor disappointment is that the band haven’t extended this avant-garde attitude to stripped-back tracks like Born to Beg and Empire Line which, perhaps, could’ve benefited from injections of experimental style.
Although The National’s songs are renowned for their blend of earnestness and dark humour, moments of optimism on Sleep Well Beast are fewer in number than before and occasionally it feels like the album needs one or two more songs like Day I Die; tracks where the music stretches its legs and the band allow themselves to let go. It would be difficult, however, to argue that such a profoundly affecting record doesn’t deserve to be ranked among their greatest output.