The National and Belle & Sebastian are the two bands I have been measuring my existence in since I became me, ca. 2008. Each album of theirs is a revelation, and Trouble Will Find Me (2013) by The National was the apt and personal soundtrack to my student years at Oxford. I had been waiting for the next record the way Dickens’s readers used to wait for the new chapter. It’s here, it’s here now: Sleep Well Beast, twelve tracks full of poetic confusion and low-key anxiety, an album that feels like drinking on a weekday afternoon.
If there is movement to the record, then it is walking in circles. The opening track ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ places us at a party we cannot wait to leave – an antithesis to and a continuation of ‘Apartment Story’ from Boxer (2007) – yet the two final songs, ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ and ‘Sleep Well Beast’, find us still a guest lingering at the party, slow-dancing through needles and pins.
This album exists on the axis between failure and acceptance, with the tracks interchangeably favouring one over the other.
In a step away from the normally symbolic language of his works, the band’s vocalist and lyricist Matt Berninger declares his goal: ‘How to get us back to the place where we were / when we first went out.’ That applies to the physical location, to the relationship that is unravelling throughout the album (throughout the band’s discography), and to the position America as a society is in now. Sleep Well Beast is the most political record The National have produced to the day – but it takes digesting the metaphors and references to feel the punch behind ‘Walk It Back’ and ‘Turtleneck’. This album exists on the axis between failure and acceptance, with the tracks interchangeably favouring one over the other.
The new record has many traits characteristic of The National: its intimate and melancholic sound, the lyrics made out of loose ends, the strong drum section and guitar solos, the expertly performed, layered melodies, the joy one can get out of sadness. The main difference between this album and those preceding it seems to be in the lack of bravado. This is wolves howling on mute, this is an attempt at an attempt, a half-desperate measure, a partial absence, a contained curiosity about one’s own affairs.
The sentiment above largely applies to the album’s mood and lyrics, but musically Sleep Well Beast is also different. It moves into the electronic territory, not normally associated with the band. The eponymous track is a good working example of both developments:
This is wolves howling on mute, this is an attempt at an attempt, a half-desperate measure, a partial absence, a contained curiosity about one’s own affairs.
‘Sleep Well Beast’, at 6:33 minutes long, feels like an experiment, like overhearing an orchestra warming up in the pit, and like a spoken-word piece. In contrast with the final songs from the previous albums, there is no overreaching emotion for ‘Sleep Well Beast’. There is no quiet disappointment of ‘Anna Freud’ (The National, 2001), no obsessive unrequited love of ‘Lucky You’ (Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, 2003), or rage of ‘Mr November’ (Alligator, 2007). It does not exist in mellow anticipation of death, like ‘Gospel’ (Boxer, 2007) or ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ (High Violet, 2010; the piece that used to be performed a cappella at the end of their concerts, with the audience singing along). There is no romantic nostalgia of ‘Hard to Find’ (Trouble Will Find Me, 2013). Instead, ‘Sleep Well Beast’ is meditative, seemingly disjointed and repetitive, a stream of consciousness disguised as a modern lullaby.
Despite the sensation of suspended movement, of an itch to leave, of riding trains that do not go from A to B, but travel within the space-time continuum between the moment of your birth to this very moment here and now – despite the agitation and turmoil, the record is very much grounded in its geographical references. New York and – specifically – Brooklyn, Cleveland in Ohio, Lawrencetown, Albany form the background to the songs, tie the images together.
Sleep Well Beast is the seventh album by The National, and by now there is an established vocabulary of names, allusions, localities and inner rhymes. Valentine Jester, the great uncle with a taste for vodka from ‘The Day I Die’ is the hero of ‘Val Jester’ from Alligator (2005). Carin of ‘Carin at the Liquor Store’ has previously appeared in ‘Karen’ from that same older album, and both are Carin Besser, Matt Berninger’s wife and a regular contributor the the band’s work.
Sleep Well Beast is the seventh album by the band, and by now there is an established vocabulary of names, allusions, localities and inner rhymes.
A mind in a shell, teacups full of gin, answers to the questions proposed by other songs years ago (see the suggested dialogue between ‘About Today’ and ‘Guilty Party’), nods to The Smiths and Leonard Cohen – The National are creating a lore of their own and, as Glastonbury headliners, they certainly have enough fans speaking the same language.
The music of The National works like arsenic: slowly, steadily, until you are done for. They do not produce instant radio hits, they make songs that grow on you. One has to listen to an album half a dozen times before forming any sort of opinion – and that opinion will continue to change.
Right now I prefer ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’, what with its Philip K. Dick undertones and the most artistically vague line of all times: ‘We’re in a different kind of thing now’. ‘Carin in the Liquor Store’ is delightfully beautiful, like waking up to discover yourself in love. I shall probably turn to ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ later on. That song is a jaded yet calculated piece about drugs; unusually enough, it contains no tragedy or longing, or fun. Just calculation and habit. ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ also happens to be about the anxiety of parenting.
The music of The National works like arsenic: slowly, steadily, until you are done for.
Once, at the end of a house party, a guest asked the host to put some happy music on. The host obliged and put The National to play. The guest was surprised and confused. Later on, retelling the story, the host would always add, ‘I don’t think she got it. The National is our happy music.’
Turn the light out, say goodnight,
No thinking for a little while.
Let’s not try to figure out everything at once.
It’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky.
We’re half awake in a fake empire,
We’re half awake in a fake empire.
Discography: The National, Sleep Well Beast. United States. Released on 4AD from September 8th, 2017. (On AllMusic)
Current album: The National, Sleep Well Beast
Current book: Stephen King, Carrie
Current TV series: Daria, Series 1 (1997)