By Alec Warkentin
For all intents and purposes, the ever-growing acclaim surrounding Cincinnati commiserators The National can be attested to anything but a brimming and constant need for experimentation — but their latest album, Sleep Well Beast, finds the group revelling more outwardly than ever before.
Following the success of their last release Trouble Will Find Me, the past four years have found each respective member of the band focusing primarily on side-projects, individually fracturing into various collaborations with other artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Jonny Greenwood, and Brent Knopf.
But the burning question for one of the biggest bands in indie-rock, a group known for their overt dedication to grandiose subtlety, latent slow-burn tracks that bleed familiarity with permeating emotional dread, and wickedly-talented composition that grows in the mind like ivy, is always How? How could they possibly continue their consistent stream of quality albums, each more acclaimed than the last?
The answer to this question is found in Sleep Well Beast, an album constructed with familiar framework—down-tempo malaise and rollicking percussion—a house built on a tried-and-true foundation, rooms filled with self-referential lyrics and sad-sack moroseness, but this time decorated with left-turn flair: bristling guitar solos (“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”), oscillating synth-work (“Walk It Back”), and unbridled urgency (“Turtleneck”).
Sleep Well Beast also marks one of the most sonically-rich albums in The National’s near-impeccable discography, with each moment featuring minute sounds and ambience in an aural experience that only serves to compliment the honeyed baritone of vocalist Matt Berninger.
Drummer Bryan Devendorf’s percussion is, as always, on point (“Day I Die”), and the influence from guitarist/keyboardist Bryce Dessner’s work on the solar-system-inspired album Planetarium shines through the glitchy keys on tracks like “Empire Line” and “I’ll Still Destroy You.”
There is also a structural contrast from the The National’s previous two releases Trouble Will Find Me (2013) and High Violet (2010), which were carried on a fluid wave of emotional resonance, each track flowing into one another very simply and delicately. Sleep Well Beast, while retaining some fluidity, is more of a callback to the shifting tonal structures of Alligator (2005) and Boxer (2007), and manages to do so without seeming regressive in its execution.
While Sleep Well Beast may not probe any new territory thematically, primarily focusing on the dissolution of relationships and friendships, ruminating in the melancholic way that only Berninger’s lyricism can, the album still manages to hit the emotional high-points that the long-time National fans hunger for (“Nobody Else Will Be There,” “Carin at the Liquor Store”).
If anything, Sleep Well Beast can be considered the first album by The National that isn’t a grower — it comes out full force, showcasing the best parts of a band full of talented performers who know their strengths, playing music together in utter synergy.4AD, Record Review, Sleep Well Beast, The National