Music

The National: Sleep Well Beast

Photo: Graham Macindoe (Courtesy of artist)

Sleep Well Beast, the National's best LP since Boxer, features some of the band's most raucous numbers to date, as well as a newfound use of electronics.


The National

Sleep Well Beast

Label: 4AD
US Release Date: 2017-09-08
UK Release Date: 2017-09-08
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image