The National: Sleep Well Beast

By: Zach Rimer

   Hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, veteran indie-rock band The National return this year with their seventh LP, Sleep Well Beast. Since their 2005 breakout album, Alligator, the band has built a reputation as a group with a very reliable sound. You can always count on The National for a melancholy, string-laden rock record, perfect for rainy days.

With Sleep Well Beast, however, the band is seemingly looking to break this mould, opting to change their sound up after nearly twenty years of playing in the same musical sandbox. Those strings and horns with which the band had grown comfortable with have been largely replaced with drum machines and synthesizers, creating a much colder, digital landscape. This change of pace suits some songs incredibly well, namely, “Walk It Back” and opener, “Nobody Else Will Be There.” The synthetic touch gives these songs a sparse, haunting atmosphere that compliments the lyrics and understated vocals. Unfortunately, these songs are the exception rather than the rule. For most of the tracks, the band’s experiments with electronica seem like an afterthought, at best adding little to the song, at worst distracting from the song-writing on display. The biggest victim of these experiments is the title track, closing the album with little more than the band playing with their new toys in a song that ultimately goes nowhere. 

Outside of the lacklustre finish, this electronic window-dressing does not take long to get used to, and lying underneath are some of the strongest tracks of the band’s career. The album strikes a nice balance between subdued ballads and loud rockers. “Turtleneck,” in particular is The National’s most aggressive song since Alligator, with vocalist Matt Berninger bringing back the screams that were once his trademark. Conversely, the ballads here are minimalistic and beautiful. Back to back tracks, “Carin at the Liquor Store” and “Dark Side of the Gym” are earnest love songs fit for slow dancing, and would have fit snugly in the band’s understated 2013 effort, Trouble Will Find Me.

Despite these contrasting styles, the album still stands as a cohesive whole, due in large part to the lyrics. Berninger treads familiar ground on Sleep Well Beast, but still shows that he is one of the most relatable songwriters working today. The lyrics here are concerned with the personal, and while things occasionally get political, he mostly sings about the struggles of marriage and long-term relationships. Berninger is not one to make any grand, sweeping statements about love. The love he describes is one that is aged and weathered; he is not interested in winning anyone’s heart, but just wants to keep his partner in love with him, “for a while”.

Taken as a whole, Sleep Well Beast is both an enjoyable listen and a strong addition to the band’s discography. While listeners new to The National may be better off checking out some of their past releases to start, fans will welcome the diverse song-writing styles on display, and will appreciate the minimal ballads and aggressive cuts alike.


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