Sleep Well Beast, the seventh album by the National, begins quite like the band’s 2007 breakthrough Boxer. That album’s opening number, “Fake Empire”, awakens with a repetitive piano figure that builds to an anthemic yet soft chorus. It’s then followed with a rollicking drum beat by Bryan Devendorf, the heartbeat of the song “Mistaken for Strangers”, to date one of the National’s most uptempo numbers.
A decade later, that strategy proves just as effective on Sleep Well Beast. “Nobody Else Will Be There” pulls the curtains up Sleep Well Beast slowly, with muted piano notes crawling under a characteristically rumbly vocal performance by Matt Berninger. Things quicken into the first few seconds of the next track, “Day I Die”, where Devendorf — one of the National’s distinguishing assets — lays down a beat that feels like running. One might call this a cheap repetition of an old trick, the Star Wars: Force Awakens of National records. But given the two interceding albums between Boxer and Sleep Well Beast, hearing this kind of opener feels like a second wind.
Some critical heterodoxy is in order. If Boxer provided the National with the ladder to success, High Violet (2010) and Trouble Will Find Me (2013) represent the band climbing to the top of it, where critical adoration and financial gain lay waiting. The National went from small stages to stadiums, from indie circles to mainstream adoration. The group that penned slow, mumbly bits of introspection like “Brainy” and “Daughters of the Soho Riots” now had the chance to fill 6,000 seat venues with its brand of low-key indie rock. Both of those LPs do feature some of the National’s strongest songs to date: Trouble Will Find Me‘s “I Need My Girl” might be Berninger’s defining vocal performance, and the sing-along choruses of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” on High Violent rightly remain concert staples. Given how long these guys worked to achieve the appreciation they garnered with their two recent records, it’s hard not to applaud when seeing them sell out most of their tour dates before Sleep Well Beast even hits the store shelves.
Yet the National’s fame did not arise co-terminus with its best music. High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me aren’t bad albums, but they’re too often uninteresting. The music on those records entrenches the mid-tempo worship of the somber that has always been a part of the National’s music, but never so repetitively as on their recent outings. The drunken, guttural vocal performance on “Demons” proves an early highlight on Trouble Will Find Me, but staid compositions like “Fireproof” and “Slipped” idle. High Violet‘s “Runaway” lulls where “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Lemonworld” get the heart racing. To borrow the apt phrase of Jamie Peck’s, the past two National LPs are made up of “well-constructed and slightly boring” songs.
Then there’s Berninger, whose lyrics on Alligator and Boxer rank high in the indie pantheon. On High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me, he gets caught up in cryptic but ultimately flat lyrics like on “Terrible Love”: “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders,” he repeats early in the song, later concluding, “It takes an ocean not to break”. If not jumping the shark, Berninger at the very least dug in to one specific dimension of his lyric-writing on High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me, at the expense of the complexity that exists on National classics like “Slow Show” and “Mistaken for Strangers”. These lyrics privilege what Corey Beasley calls a “pure suggestive weirdness” that works in spare doses, but not as a device that can be repeated ad infinitum.
That Sleep Well Best in its opening moments so clearly echoes Boxer, which is widely (and rightly) regarded as the National’s peak, is a relief. But the sign of good things to come arrived well before anyone could hear “Nobody Else Will Be There” and “Day I Die”. The first single to be released from Sleep Well Beast, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, captures the National in its most energized form in recent memory. A staticky guitar riff stabs in and out of the insistent drum beat. Berninger drops a series of crypticisms that amplify the tension of Devendorf’s drums: “Maybe I listen more than you think / I can tell that somebody sold you / We said we’d never let anyone in / We said we’d only die of lonely secrets”. The true jolt comes just after the second post-chorus, where a feature typical of rock music but atypical for the National takes center stage: a guitar solo. “Shred” will never appear in the litany of adjectives pegged to the band, but Aaron Dessner gets pretty damn close. The National writes deceptively complex music, all subtle polyrhythms and unusual meters. The genius of the band’s music comes in the conglomeration of intricately plotted parts, not in one instrumentalist shining above the others. That remains true on Sleep Well Beast, but for one glorious moment a single instrument takes the lead, exuding an energy from which the National’s music benefits very much.
“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is but one of a few key rowdy moments on Sleep Well Beast. The almost rockabilly “Turtleneck” reminds the listener that the National used to write tunes like “Abel” and “Mr. November”, raucous jams where Berninger lets his grumbles become roars and where the rest of the group, well, rocks out. “Day I Die” exudes a similar energy to a different effect. “Turtleneck” sounds like a grimy pub stage would be its true home; “Day I Die”, with its anthemic, almost poppy chorus, is tailor-made for the bigger venues that the National now regularly sells out. Berninger’s confidence on “Day I Die” adds to the propulsion of Devendorf’s drums: “Young mothers love me / Even ghosts of girlfriends call from Cleveland / They will meet me anytime and anywhere.” Each one of the piercing guitar leads by Dessner is like a ray of sunshine emanating from the track. As the spiritual successor to “Mistaken for Strangers”, “Day I Die” answers that song’s 9-to-5 malaise with an affirmation of the ability to overcome life’s struggles. This optimism is all the more necessary given the glum electronic experimentation that makes up the bulk of Sleep Well Beast.
Right after “Day I Die” concludes its gallop, oscillating synth notes usher in the characteristically understated “Walk it Back”, a number which wouldn’t have been out of place on Trouble Will Find Me were it not for the electronics. “Empire Line”, “I’ll Still Destroy You”, and the title track also incorporate electronics, to an effect far less radical than it might sound. Sleep Well Beast is not “the National gone electronic”, even as that kind of instrumentation takes on a unique prominence for the group. The use of electronics here serves to reinforce, rather than entirely change, the National’s style. The strident electronic beat on “Empire Line” segues perfectly into an acoustic beat by Devendorf, just as the electronic drums on “I’ll Still Destroy You” interweave with the regular drum kit to enhance the rhythm.
Sleep Well Beast succeeds due to a simple songwriting decision that, in retrospect, illuminates why High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me fall into ruts. With those two LPs, the band offered little by way of change in timbre: Berninger’s voice is low, and the guitars rarely rise to anything above slight distortion. The performances by all musicians are great, but the National so perfected its aesthetic on Boxer that both of its successors feel like slight variations on a theme. Sleep Well Beast isn’t entirely discontinuous from the albums before it, but what it chooses to change and emphasize makes all the difference. “Day I Die” and “Turtleneck” revivify the kind of controlled chaos that has been absent for the National in recent years. The use of electronic instruments on “Walk It Back” and “Empire Line” make that unmistakable National sonic feel new again. “If I stay here, I’ll never leave,” Berninger sings on Trouble Will Find Me‘s “Sea of Love”. Thankfully, he and the rest of his bandmates didn’t stay there, and their music is all the better for it.