The National: Sleep Well Beast review
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but The National didn’t fully hit my radar until last year.
Living under a rock much?
Hurtling through the Ohioan five-piece’s stunning back catalogue over the past 12 months or so, I’ve repeatedly second-guessed myself: what the hell had I been doing?
I mean, fair enough to miss one or two excellent albums (the one-two punch of Alligator and Boxer) but – adding High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me to the mix – four?
Life’s all about convenience with a gaggle of little-uns clamouring for your attention; you deploy the tried-and-true to get through each week.
And, I guess, I didn’t have room, or the inclination, for too much new music.
Looking at the release years of The National’s past four albums (and the under-appreciated two prior) and I’m sort-of glad that fate connected me with them when it did: in 2005 I was a stoner in a struggling relationship, watching the world drift by; in 2007 I was reeling from a break-up and the head-zap of a new love; all the while swimming in melancholy.
Maybe I had room for The National then, but it might’ve sent me over the edge, too.
Many forty-something blokes with introspective leanings (and a profound taste in music) have, however, evolved with the band, from the hook-laden freedom of 2005’s Alligator through to the dinner-party elegance of 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me.
They’re a band that has more than served their purpose; they’ve caressed and delighted with rough-edged anthems and heart-warming balladry. More than once they’ve stopped us in our tracks: moved us away from the grind, had us contemplating and searching.
Now, we’re getting on with the idea of middle age.
But if you had doubts whether you had room for another National album, think again.
Sleep Well Beast is equally a departure and an album that fits snugly within The National canon. It’s relatable. Gloomy. Patient. Slow-burning. Another long-player made for headphones and Sunday afternoon walks in weak sunlight.
But they muss the edges of their sound enough that those who’ve delighted in the band’s previous efforts will do so again. The trademark textured guitars and piano flourishes are now accompanied by smatterings of Kid A-style electro; synthesisers and drum machines add layers of noise; there’s an overall feeling of extra space. And, with all that going on, they don’t sound like they’re trying too hard.
For a band known for its fastidiousness in terms of production, there’s a bit of a dishevelled unfurling to Sleep Well Beast, rather than alternating fast and slow or heavy and light the album is front-loaded with louder – well, as loud as you might expect from The National – moments. To paint an analogy: a man of responsibility on a rare big night out; the first half sees him recapturing the light of youth as he drains his first half-dozen beers (see the loud, cracking “Turtleneck”, a jolting switchback to the band’s early days that was recorded in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election) before giving way to a moody back half that reeks of “weed mixed with wine” and untucked shirts.
See the made-for-the-witching-hour title track: “How to get us back to the place where we were when we first went out / Losing parents, losing sense / I don’t know what we should do / Became a father when I was still a son, she brings it out in you…”
And when there’s nothing left in a long-term relationship, on “Guilty Party” – “I say your name / I say I’m sorry / I know it’s not working / I’m no holiday / It’s nobody’s fault / No guilty party / We just got nothing / Nothing left to say…” – and on the excellent lead single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”: “I thought that this would all work out after a while / Now you’re saying that I’m asking for too much attention…”
Then there’s ”Empire Line”, a track that doesn’t register much at first, before its grand tumult sneaks past your defences: “Can’t you find a way? / You are in this too / Can’t you find a way?”
And, from the same song, a nod to the solitude often felt by the modern dad: “I’ve been talking about you to myself / Cause there’s nobody else…”
Berninger’s charm and fragility are, as always, on the surface. Case in point: “Walk it Back” – “I’m always mothering myself to bits / I’m always checking out” – and arguably the album’s best track “I’ll Still Destroy You”: “The more level they have me / The more I cannot stand me / I have helpless friendships / And bad taste in liquids…”
Elsewhere, “Dark Side of the Gym” recaptures the romance of “Pink Rabbits”, while ballad “Carin at the Liquor Store” embodies everything they do well.
Unlike their crossover indie-rock contemporaries Arcade Fire, their daring hasn’t stymied a fifth successive great album. In fact, The National might well be the most consistent band on the planet. Even the gap between Radiohead’s best and worst dwarfs that of The National.
So, indulge in a quality single-malt and put this on high rotation.
Because if this is what “dad-rock” is, I’m glad to be here, now.
4.5 stars (out of 5).
Daniel Lewis is co-founder and editor of The Dad Website. In another life, he penned the odd music review for a national paper.