by: Stephan Andrew Masnyj
When The National released their previous record, Trouble Will Find Me four years ago, it felt like an outlier in the band’s discography. Compared to their previous achievements Boxer and High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me operated in an almost self aware manner, as if they knew all the anxieties that dominated their albums were borderline overdramatic. In essence, it felt like an endpoint, and that something would have to change in order to prevent their now iconic style from becoming stale and overwrought. The band itself knew this rejection of complacency was vital, with lead singer Matthew Berninger mentioning “I think The National need to do other things to keep us excited about The National” in 2016.
Over four years after that precarious position, Sleep Well Beast — the band’s seventh album — has arrived, and makes good on the band’s promise to change the formula that made them indie rock darlings. Gone are the twitchy, lush arrangements of High Violet and the stadium-rock refinements of Trouble Will Find Me. In their place are electronic flourishes that take center stage in nearly every track on here. The National aren’t the first indie artist to incorporate electronic arrangements well into their careers (see: Bon Iver), but this record shows that they’re certainly more capable in making the transition seamless. The shadows of their former selves are still intact; “Day I Die” is an immediate classic, riding a driving drumbeat that’s reminiscent of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and a guitar riff that sounds more U2 than any previous National record. Elsewhere on “Turtleneck,” Berninger adopts a snarl that hasn’t been seen since their 2005 record Alligator. Yet the foundations these songs are built on are now electronic clicks, hums, and drumpads. “I’ll Still Destroy You” skates along a skittering beat of drumpads and chopped up synths, while highlight “Guilty Party” puts gorgeous horns over a backdrop of static and understated drumbeat. While these changes may seem jarring to a longtime listeners of the band, the changes make sense within the context of their subject material. Matthew Berninger’s grim baritone has often adopted a sense of despondence within its delivery, and the cold air these flourishes bring add a new wrinkle to the band’s well established formula.
Lyrically, Berninger writes some of his most affecting work here. It’s been reported that his wife, Carin Besser, had larger co-writing duties than previous records, and the subject matter here centers mostly around the intricacies of a crumbling relationship. Berninger has come forth saying that the process of airing out their respective grievances helped make their marriage stronger, but that wouldn’t be apparent to the listener given how bleak much of the material is here. That’s not to say this is a bad thing; The National have always been a band that takes their lowest lows and turn them into their greats anthems. However, the simplicity of the lyrics here work wonders in evoking the emotions needed to help these songs take flight. A key conceit to the appeal of Berninger’s lyrics is his ability to home on the intimate details of a scene, and using them as the vehicle for a story. “I only take up a little of the collapsing space — I better cut this off/Don’t want to fuck it up” goes the chorus of “Walk it Back,” which is essentially a mid-argument internal monologue set as the song’s main hook. Elsewhere, he intones that he’s “Just trying to stay in touch with/anything I’m still in touch with” on “I’ll Still Destroy You.” The meat of these stories exists on the outer reaches of the central conflict, and as a result allows the listener to fill in the outlines with their own personal experiences. The ability for The National to create emotionally affecting work that remains intimate enough to be engaging — yet ambiguous enough to remain relatable — has been the center of their appeal for the past 17 years, and they’ve arguably never been better at it than they are here.
So where does Sleep Well Beast lie in terms of their critically acclaimed discography? While High Violet vaulted the band into New York Times cover stories and Trouble Will Find Me repurposed their gifts to help fill stadiums, this new record hews closer to their under the radar masterpiece, Boxer, in both consistency and quality. Boxer’s most alluring trait was the ability to capture the low buzzing anxiety and depression that takes hold once people realize how their adult lives are beginning to take shape in themselves and everyone around them. There’s a thread of insularity that connects Sleep Well Beast to the 2007 record; a sense of internal acceptance that the feelings of discomfort expressed ten years ago don’t really go away, but rather evolve and manifest themselves in different ways as we age. “I’ll still destroy you someday/Sleep well beast, you as well beast” are the last words Berninger intones on the record. While it may be easy to write the comment off as a signal of resignation, in context it feels like a quiet, confident victory. We’d be remiss to think of the album as anything different.