Review by Tom Cooney
Ever since breaking through to the forefront of the indie scene with their now-ten-year-old seminal record Boxer, The National have perfected their own formula of elegantly mournful alt-rock. As their subsequent projects were released, long-time listeners could feel increasingly comfortable in what to expect from the Ohio quintet. However, four years have passed since The National’s last full-length album – the longest break in their entire discography. But it has not been a time of stagnation. Their latest effort Sleep Well Beast has rewritten that winning, yet predictable, formula, creating a record that teems with the rejuvenated energy Matt Berninger and co. are so clearly imbued with.
Hints at the band’s sonic evolution first appeared with lead single, ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’. The track is striking from the offset, opening with a high-tempo drum beat flecked with hints of guitar that culminate in an incredible solo from Aaron Dessner. Upping the instrumental ante to this level could very easily mask Berninger’s often-mellow vocals, yet the frontman raises his register to match. Such a blistering melody is unorthodox for The National at this stage in their career, yet the most surprising changes to the band’s musical output are found elsewhere on the track-list.
It is their experimentation in electronica that truly sets Sleep Well Beast apart from previous National offerings. Tracks like ‘Walk It Back’ thrive in synthesizers and drum machines, with the band often mixing these newer flavours with heavier instrumentation. This sound is perhaps most effective in ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, an impassioned track exploring the dangers of self-medication and substance abuse. Such lugubrious lyrics come as standard for a National album, and they do remain prevalent here. Opener ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ certainly drives home its dismal title, and single ‘Carin at the Liquor Store’ is a highly emotive piano ballad. While such melancholy does become overbearing on previous records, here the band frequently zoom out of the personal and into the socio-political – providing an electrifying respite.
The political views of The National are no secret, with influential single ‘Fake Empire’ being used in Obama’s first presidential campaign, and the band performing at an anti-Trump rally prior to his 2016 election success. It was at this very event that the band premiered album-track ‘Turtleneck’, eliminating any doubt at whom Berninger bitingly refers to as “the genius we’ve been waiting years for.” It is unsurprising then, that this is one of the angriest National songs that have ever been released. ‘Turtleneck’ is a bona fide rock tune, with thudding – almost lo-fi – instrumentation and yet another thrilling guitar solo. The band haven’t sounded this heavy since 2005’s Alligator, and in its heavily political context, it works perfectly.
Album-number-seven for the Ohio alt-rockers is a triumph in musical experimentation, exploring elements of the electronic while also maintaining a lyrical and instrumental resonance synonymous with the band. The title may suggest otherwise, but Sleep Well Beast proves that The National are more awake than ever.