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The National – Sleep Well Beast This is now their seventh album, a full five years after the release of their previous album. Their music is the perfect blend of a rainy day mixed with a slow motion shot of someone running in the rain to find themselves. It is a soundtrack to people looking to discover themselves over headphones, but in a live concert setting, they are a raw power house of a rock band. This plays best to the sounds of the band as they evolve with each album, making their live performances mixed with emotions as each song carries with it a story. It isn’t a culmination of just sad melancholic track after another, and this album proves it. The two sets of brothers, Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner along with Bryan Devendorf and Scott Devendorf have once again musically made a masterpiece. Also, the lyrics and vocal range for this album are a new departure for lead singer Matt Berninger, which at times can be refreshing.
Their history is filled with critical acclaim from Alligator to Boxer, the first album which we heard from the band in 2007. This was then later followed up with High Violet, another album which was also critically acclaimed and that led to the band topping the charts with Trouble Will Find Me. With the band now living in different places, there was some speculation as to how that would affect the album. In an interview with CBS, the band said that they feel like the time in the studio is more special and it does reflect greatly on this album.
Their usual system for making albums takes place usually in New York, but with this album they changed it up a bit. Aaron Dessner told Hi-Fi, “We designed and built a studio… in upstate New York. It’s like a kind of garage and church.” It is actually the cover of the album. When talking more about the studio Aaron said, “For the first time in many years we were in the situation where we could hear what we were doing in the layers and depth and sound.”
This is a grand departure from where the band had recorded their previous albums, which was a garage in Brooklyn. With the now ability to hear every small sound, the band was a bit more tuned into the album, but not to the extent of overburdening it with ecliptic sounds. Berninger in an interview with Toronto 88 said, “I think we are relaxing in a funny way and we are embracing some simple pleasures in hooks and things like that where I think before, if we had a hook, I think we would be embarrassed by it.”
The record comes with two blue vinyls as well as a lyric sheet and poster on another side. The album starts with “Nobody Else Will Be There,” which sounds like a song that is by The National. Berninger does what he does best and gives us his dark brooding voice during the verses. The lyrics are dark and real, with Berninger giving it his all saying, “Hey baby, where were you back then? When I needed your hand.”
This sound changes dramatically with the second track from their album, “Day I Die,” which has the same feeling of angst and frustrations that we feel towards people that we rarely give a fuck about anymore. It is that universal feeling of looking at times past and reflecting on where a friendship could be on, “The Day I Die.” It is the normal talk about being an adult and having those thoughts while out drinking, or in his words, “…when you get too high and talk forever.”
The single from the album which came out this past spring was a vast departure from what we have heard from the band before. “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness,” begins with a synthesizer and then a very generic metallic guitar riff. Then as a listener, your foot begins to tap, but not in the way a normal song by The National does. It seems, nearly, joyous. When the chorus takes hold though, then the sounds from The National take over. The boxy formula which made the band who they are now shines through. It is just a bit different still to hear a guitar solo in one of their albums. The lyrics though fit the bill saying, “Loss of no other faith is light enough for this place. We said we’d only die of lonely secrets.”
“Turtleneck,” sounded like a song that was accidentally printed onto this album. It was puzzling to hear this on the album, but goddamn is it good. This is The National being at their most aggressive. It is a like a song of teenage angst, but still, knowing Berninger, these must be a substance reference in the song. This track is so punk rock that the reference is in the chorus saying, “Keep the weed next to the bed.” This politically inclined track talks about, “The poor, they leave their cellphones in the bathrooms of the rich. And when they try to turn them off everything they switch to. Is just another man, in shitty suits, everybody's cheering for. This must be the genius we've been waiting years for” In an interview with The Atlantic Berninger told the reporter, “Obviously, Trump is Trump. Trump is what it is, and it’s evolving every five minutes. You know at the end of Terminator 2? When the liquid terminator turns into a demon and a man and it’s screaming as it’s dying. I feel like Donald Trump, and the Republican party, is in those last moments of when the Terminator is screeching. That is my brother’s hopeful interpretation. Hopefully it’s the death throes of an illness of America. The racism, the sexism, but it’s also the self-hatred. Our country has these puritanical values, and we’ve repressed ourselves because it’s a way of controlling. When you make people feel guilty about something, sex or whatever it is, you control their sense of what defines them as being better than other people. Religion infects people with this idea of superiority. And it’s not Jesus’s.” (Thunderous Applause)
“Guilty Party,” was the second single from the album which starts off sounding like a track off of King of Limbs by Radiohead. There is chaos in the intro with glitches and breaks with only a drum loop. This then returns to the drum pattern that plays safe for the band with lyrics that like always hit deep. “I say your name. I say I’m sorry. I’m the one doing this. There’s no other way. It’s nobody’s fault. No guilty party. I just got nothing, nothing left to say.” The song is a transportation device that takes you into your mind and collects your thoughts on those moments that we reminiscence about when thinking about heartbreak. Although the song is distant in style from what we are used to, it, at the same time feels very familiar.
In an interview with Toronto 88 Berninger spoke about his writing process. “I have had phases of being depressed and dark but I know that writing music in songs that go to the emotional shadows of your brain and your heart, and your gut, and all of that kind of stuff has always been something I have always found to be uplifting.”
The album does tend to have more depth to it and instrumentally much more to offer. Bryce Dessner told Hi-Fi, “If something was in the mix. If we were using it, then it was more its own character. Less about a layer and more about dialogue. You feel that with thing like the guitar. If they are there, they are saying something. There is simultaneously more going on. There are huge session we made on this one, but there is a lot more space.”
Lyrically the album fits every note of the band, but upon further inspection of the record, it is seen that Carin Besser, Matt Berninger’s wife, was co-credited for all the lyrics and melodies. In an interview with The Atlantic, Berninger talked about the changes that had to be made for the song to be finalized on the album. Berninger said, “Here’s an example. “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” was a totally different song. We were supposed to be finished with it, and the band was fighting about what was wrong with it. It was late in New York and it was a little earlier in L.A., and she called me and she said, “You know, I think the problem with that one is the lyrics.” She went and opened up old Garage Band sessions and found something where I mumbled about the system sleeping in darkness. She was like, “That’s a way better chorus, let’s build from there.”
This album has the sound and technique to please fans of the band as well as bring new fans to them. Sleep Well Beast shows the maturity of the band and now that they each lead their separate lives all over the country, it may be a while before we hear a new album from them. Nevertheless, this album is the culmination of what these artists could do when given time and space, and thanks to 4AD, and the status of the band, there is a feeling in this album that they are no longer trying to impress a core demographic but themselves. At times, that idea may backfire on some bands, but in this instance, we are more than pleased that the dark ideas and emotions that within us all, can still be reflected by The National.
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