By the time most listeners became aware of The National in the mid 2000s, the band had already begun to indulge in their ambient, somber sensibilities. It’s easy to forget that they were once a fairly straightforward rock and roll outfit. But The National remembers, and they aren’t afraid to crank up the guitar riffs when the mood arises. The band’s long-awaited seventh studio album, Sleep Well Beast, proves to be a photo album, walking the audience through various moments of the band’s past, while adding touches we’ve yet to see on previous efforts.
Sentimentalism isn’t readily associated with The National, but, here, they have sculpted a break-up album. Rather, it is a melancholy vision of things to come. Matt Berninger’s wearied vocals rest right on the edge of a collapsing relationship, acknowledging the back-breaking maintenance required to forge a connection with another person. The album’s earlier chapters, such as “Walk It Back” and “Day I Die,” find a speaker who’s trying to convince himself that romance isn’t worth the effort (“I don’t need you / I don’t need you”). While as the record reaches its conclusion, he gains maturity and understanding with “Guilty Party,” as he realizes that he has brought many of his troubles on himself: “I say your name / I say I’m sorry / I know it’s not working / I’m no holiday.”
Still, like much of the other earnest music released in the wake of the 2016 election, the album takes a moment to address the current political climate. In the most strangely vibrant tune on Sleep Well Beast, “Turtleneck,” manic guitars and emotive screams break the elegant composure of the previous tracks to take aim at Donald Trump: “Another man in shitty suits everybody’s cheering for / This must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for / Oh no, this is so embarrassing.” Penned the day after the election, the track openly directs its rage towards those who voted against their own self-interest, and left us all to live with the consequences.
Sonically, Sleep Well Beast is brimming with rich texture. Fans of The National are often drawn to the band for their minimalist masterpieces, but this album sees them experimenting with different styles, while simultaneously conjuring the band’s unmistakable personality. The record has distinct movements, complete with orchestral changes, from the guitar-heavy rockers (“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”) to the smoky piano ballads (“Carin at the Liquor Store”). In the end, it is a series of electronic, pulsating streams that serve as the connective tissue between tracks. Quality headphones are a necessity for the album, in order to catch all of its beautiful intricacies.
The haunting and sobering “Empire Line” serves as the album’s focal point. The synthesizer-driven tune is steeped in the claustrophobic helplessness that surrounds losing someone you love. Clinging to the past, it’s easy to get so wrapped up in your mistakes that you fail to work toward building the future. It all just feels so despairingly stagnant: “I’ve been trying to see where we’re going, but you’re so hard to follow / And I don’t think we’re getting anywhere any time soon / We have so much to cover and I don’t know what I’m expecting / You just keep saying so many things that I wish you don’t.”
In a time when many pop stars are dragging each other through the mud, The National points the finger inward. Sleep Well Beast pulls you into its grim, restless world and demands that you strive for more. Detractors have often written The National off as a one-trick pony, but this album further proves that they are one of the great American rock bands. We keep expecting them to hit their creative plateau, and yet, seven albums in, they continue to raise the bar for what their sound is capable of. If this is why we had to wait four years after 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, it was certainly worth it.