The National - Sleep Well Beast

by Mark Moody Rating:9 Release Date:2017-09-08

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that the cover photo on The National’s excellent new album, Sleep Well Beast, is of Aaron Dessner’s truncated A-frame Long Pond studio. With Dessner handling production duties this time out and the fact that the studio was paramount in assembling the output here, it is probably a pretty safe assumption. There is some pretty cool time lapse photography on the band’s website (www.americanmary.com) of recording sessions in process from the perspective of an outsider looking in. One thing you will notice is there are several guitars on stands at the window and they rarely get touched as the video unfolds. Not that the album is totally devoid of guitars but they are seldom used as the primary vehicle on most of the songs, being supplanted by synths, piano and most notably drums throughout. The studio experimentation pushes the band towards a less organic sound, but there is no mistaking this is the same band and the electronica adds to their signature detached coolness while also providing interesting shading. For a band that is sometimes knocked unfairly for sticking to a trademark sound, the effort to move in a new direction is definitely notable and commendable but thankfully not a total rework of their iconic style. Ironically, where the album makes one of its few missteps is where they use a traditional rock form which is a break in the wrong direction.  Thankfully, things get quickly back on track.

The album starts with a low key stunner – a simple piano melody surrounded by ever enveloping sonar clicks and pings, as sleek and quiet as a submarine gliding under a polar ice cap. The isolation of a couple sneaking a glass of gin in a stairwell in ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ as their relationship unwinds – “we’re not so tied together” – fits the mood of the ghostly tone of the music. For a band with some notable opening tracks like ‘Fake Empire’ and ‘I Should Live in Salt’, this is a more than worthy addition with Matt Berninger’s fine grain baritone a perfect complement to the instrumentation. As the first track ebbs, alarms sound upon the entry of ‘Day I Die’ and the first and most boisterous of the drum driven songs kicks in hard. In regards to traditional instrumentation, Bryan Devendorf is the star of the show throughout the album and unsurprisingly shows himself worthy as one of the best drummers working in a rock form today. Bringing him front and center with the studio effects to the detriment of guitar was a bold move and especially successful on this track. Yes, there is guitar here, but short bursts that serve as a needed exclamation point and not the underpinning of the song.  The counterpoint of these two tracks is substantial, but works expertly somehow.

Stringed instruments continue to take a back seat except for the great choice of a first single, ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’, and the truly horrific ‘Turtleneck’. The former deservedly being the band’s first number one single and containing an extended and smoldering guitar solo over simmering drums and synths along with an angelic chorus. It’s a great bridge from the past to what the band is doing on this album. ‘Born to Beg’ hearkens back to the feel of the opening track, but is quickly forgotten due to the train wreck that ensues. ‘Turtleneck’ is one of the few songs in The National’s oeuvre where Berninger breaks cadence to keep pace with the band on a barnstorm of a track. He has no problem doing so, but his ability to keep his calm in a house on fire song like High Violet's ‘Bloodbuzz, Ohio’ is a rare ability shared with Hamilton Leithouser when he was with The Walkmen.   Not doing so is jarring to the point of distraction. To highlight how out of place this song is, Berninger declares “this is so embarrassing” more than once as if to hedge his bets on this gamble. Fortunately, it’s the shortest song on an otherwise solid collection.

The National regain their footing in the slow burn second half, with ‘Empire Line’ containing the most devastating and vulnerable lyrics of the album. Berninger declares “there’s a line that goes all the way from my childhood to you. Can’t you find a way, you are in this too” – fully invested from birth to another who’s just not on the same page. It fits well with the John Cheever reference in ‘Carin at the Liquor Store’, with Cheever noted for his tales of outward decorum fueled by cocktails which provide the social curtain that hides deep secrets and decaying relationships. The lyric acknowledging the “foregone conclusion” giving it all away. Sonically, ‘Guilty Party’ serves as the third leg of the stool with “Nobody Else Will Be There’ and ‘Born to Beg’ as my favorite exploration of their more experimental sound.  The only other notable misstep for me is ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ where maybe changing the name of the track from what was used when it was debuted last year serves to provide some level of dread. Otherwise, it sounds like and is a pretty, but too light, take on Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Blue Moon’ and would fit without much irony as a closing song at next year’s high school proms. It’s not nearly out of place as ‘Turtleneck’, but just doesn’t fit the mood here. The title song is an appropriate closer taking us out with a bit more rumble than we came in with.

Given Sleep Well Beast's almost hour long playing time, there are very few weak moments here and the effort to expand their sound while abandoning traditional approaches pays off handsomely. It’s great to see a band relatively far into their career answering the call to do something different without walking away from the success of their past. It should be interesting to see what Aaron’s newly constructed studio, that the band felt worthy of taking cover photo dominance, will produce in the future.  In the meantime, this album easily ranks among their best.

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