The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’ – Review

17 Sep

I feel like every review of a new National album starts from the assumption that it is going to be boring. When I return to them, I think I start from that assumption as well. I suppose their sad, slow songs are so good that we collectively forget there are both shaggier and sharper sides and edges to this band. Songs that shout, scratch and shriek. Songs that pop like balloons. All sides of the band are represented on their seventh (seventh!) album, ‘Sleep Well Beast’, whose biggest achievement is how it manages to readjust the temperature controls ever so slightly whilst essentially keeping the listener feeling comfortable and relaxed. This is still a National album, and it sounds like it. But things are just ever so slightly grouchier, darker and more agitated.

The big picture is that this is Matt Beringer’s divorce album – the twist being that the writing process actually saved the marriage. It encompasses all the rage, contemplativeness, grief, depression, optimism and renewal that that process implies. Nice idea, but, well, both Beyoncé and Jaz Z stamped their names on that idea on their most recent albums, and besides, every National album has covered themes of grown up, marital disharmony before. So what’s really new?

Mostly it’s the music. At times the sounds are more fragmented than they’ve ever been before, which makes it feel like the band members are working against an ideal of unity; rubbing up and pulling at the edges of each other. On lead single ‘The System only Dreams in Total Darkness’, a Woody Woodpecker guitar squeals and splutters in fits and spurts while brooding percussion builds tension and drama. On ‘Empire Line’, a tightly wound beat rattles against thudding synths. Peculiar vocal snatches, and a flickering high hat, disrupt Beringer’s bassey croon on ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’. The songs themselves aren’t anything particularly groundbreaking for the band, and a couple are completely forgettable, but it’s consistently fascinating on a sonic level. Throughout there are guitars shredding against crystallised beats or bass lines circling in spite of chaos and noise. This creates for a tension that makes ‘Sleep Well Beast’ decidedly not an easy listening record, in spite of the grand pianos and stately melodies that ground almost every song.

You sense it wouldn’t be quite like this if it were left to Matt Berigner. By quite some distance this is his sleepiest contribution to a National record. His singing is lazy – even on the frantic, oddly positioned rocker, ‘Turtleneck’, he sounds like he’s on downers, fighting against a head cold. Thankfully then, his lyrical contribution is as singular as ever. He shines a light on the dusty corners of a marriage; with a novelist’s eye for odd detail and a Soap writer’s awareness of pure emotive power. As I said before, marital disharmony is hardly new ground for The National – arguably nothing here hits as hard as ‘Slipping Husband’, a frantic song on the subject from the band’s second album – but they’ve never gone in at the angle quite so doggedly before. In the past middle age was a scary prospect, creeping around the corner, here it’s a living and breathing reality.

To compensate for the necessary dullness of what is being described – essentially a slow, mundane collapse of a relationship – Beringer’s language becomes typically colourful and unusual. His style is to mix stone cold realism with ambiguous surrealism, to leave the reader swimming in the contrasts. And so, for example, we get intriguing head scratchers like ‘for years I used to put my head in the speakers in the hallway’ and ‘no other faith is light enough for this place’, splashed in with the brutal, simple honesty of ‘I don’t need you, besides I barely even see you anymore.’ The overall effect is both disorientating and captivating – it’s what makes Matt Beringer such a unique lyricist.

He knows when and how to dial it back as well. The National have always been capable of delivering gut punchingly simple sentiments (‘About Today’, ‘Lucky You’, ‘Slow Show’, ‘I Need My Girl’), and here they do it with the album’s best song ‘Dark Side of the Gym’, a pretty tune with a refrain of ‘I’m going to keep you in love with me’. It’s a song about how quickly time passes – one minute you’re struggling to talk to the girl you like, the next minute you’re on the brink of separation. The ultimate message though is about perseverance and commitment, and The National remain the greatest embodiment of, and ambassadors for this idea. The small miracle is that after all these years, The National Still sound like The National. Altered a little perhaps but recognisable as the same band. Like the longest lasting marriages, they’re complicated, slightly unstable and built on a foundation of deep lasting love.

7.5/10

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