A pretty, well-produced National album.
Cincinnati rock band The National have stuffed their 18-year career full of delightfully on-the-nose lyrics, but “I’m always mothering myself to bits” might be their best to date. Lead singer Matt Berninger’s disaffected bass is the perfect instrument to deliver these lines. It flawlessly walks the tightrope between genuine heartache and arch self-parody, the way we all thought Father John Misty could maybe do before Pure Comedy shattered those hopes.
The fairest criticism floating around about The National’s music is that it’s too mannered. Berninger is 46 and still singing mopey songs about lost love and missed connections and a consuming sense that “the world isn’t fair, man.” To then drop a line like “I’m always mothering myself to bits,” which acknowledges the criticism while at the same time feeding it, is a ballsy move, and it pays off. The National’s new record Sleep Well Beast is less ballsy than that line, perhaps, but the payoff is roughly the same.
Their first LP in four years (since 2013’s exquisite Top 10 hit Trouble Will Find Me), Sleep Well Beast sounds a lot like you probably think it sounds. Consistency isn’t complacency, though, and throughout, the band maintains their signature blend of arty post-rock and canny poetry. Aaron and Bryce Dresner are still masters of morphing their guitars to fit a song’s emotional landscape, and most of the music still sounds like a semi-dangerous lullaby that gets more textured the closer you listen.
A marked difference, though, is that Sleep Well Beast feels very much like The National’s New York Album. No longer based in the city, the band moved upriver to record most of the record in the Hudson Valley, but NYC has a stake in the record’s entire DNA. In “Nobody Else Will Be There,” Berninger sings “It’s a subway day”; on “Beg For You” he observes, “New York is older/ Changing its skin again/ Dies every year and then it begins again.”
This is no Annie Hall, New-York-Is-A-Character-In-My-Screenplay situation. It doesn’t feel cheap or put-upon for the sake of Big Apple grittiness. Instead, it feels like Berninger and Co. are pulling from the city as a concrete representation of their grand/intimate sensibilities. The songs still have ridiculous, grandiose titles (“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” “I’ll Still Destroy You,” “Carin at the Liquor Store” and “The Dark Side of the Gym”) that rival past records in their ability to conceal emotional depth beneath a sarcastic façade. The National has always sounded like being lonely in New York, they’re just admitting that they know that now.
There are also a handful of subtle production flourishes that set Sleep Well Beast toward the front of one’s head even after a single listen. Though they’d surely be horrified by the comparison, fourth single “Day I Die” begins with cascading U2 guitars that eventually settle into the mix, while the (surprisingly non-vengeful) “I’ll Still Destroy You” features a startling percussive line—a marimba, maybe?—that gives way to a chaotic, borderline-ecstatic collection of sounds that emulate Self’s work on their 2000 album Gizmodgery, which was recorded entirely with sounds from children’s toys.
The album’s best and most surprising moment, though, is “Turtleneck,” a shockingly propulsive number that breaks a molasses-y first act with bona fide glam riffs. As Berninger cheekily shouts “This is so embarrassing,” he sounds like Win Butler, and the song’s witty take on materialism winds up feeling like a bittersweet look at what Arcade Fire’s soggy Everything Now could and should have been. A later lyric in “I’ll Still Destroy You” seals this comparison: “I have no positions/ No point of view or vision/ I’m just trying to stay in touch with anything I’m still in touch with.”
Ultimately, it’s moments like that that will keep Sleep Well Beast spinning in the coming months. The majority of the record is a pretty, well-produced National album that should satisfy anyone who’s been missing them, but there are enough shiny new tidbits to hook the otherwise unconverted. It may not be a true beast of a record that fully justifies a four year hiatus, but it’s an intelligent, fulfilling effort, nourishing in all the right ways and inventive in a few surprising ones.