Grade: 5.0 / 5.0
In 2008, The National played at a rally for Barack Obama and sold T-shirts in support of his candidacy; during the 2010 midterm election, the band played to a crowd of 25,000 during one of his rallies in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2016, they played a show for Hillary Clinton.
But Sleep Well Beast, the band’s 7th album, is the first to carry that political action directly into the band’s music. The National has always been apt at running tight, moody circles around whatever themes interest the band at the time. The four-piece from Cincinnati typically exhibits a characteristic patience — more content to throw a thousand repeated, glancing blows than a single knockout punch.
That hasn’t disappeared on Sleep Well Beast. But there’s a distinct sense of urgency present in this album — one that wraps itself in the darkness that has descended on our times politically — and seems to plead with us to understand that something is very wrong.
Wrapping Trump into The National’s style of performance isn’t an easy task, but without ever naming him — “Is just another man, in shitty suits, everybody’s cheering for” — “Turtleneck” eviscerates him with thick, screaming guitars and one of the two guitar solos on the album. It’s a truly angry song — coiling, twisted, discordant guitar high notes plunge into heavy choruses that might have arisen if you gave Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys way too much coffee and then really pissed them off.
If the white-hot anger of “Turtleneck” is the pointed edge of the album, tracks like “Day I Die” and “Guilty Party” perfectly evoke the tiredness and resignation we feel when the anger runs out. What’s incredible about both tracks — and the rest of the album — is the way these slower, more melancholic tracks still simmer with unbridled energy. Much of this comes from Bryan Devendorf’s intricate, syncopated and constantly shifting percussion, which regardless of tempo or tone drives and throws us off with its atypical beats.
The National has an annoying habit of proving that there’s still new ground to be explored in the simplest chord structures. The chorus of “Day I Die” features a simple descending line. But it is the band’s ability to leverage the right instruments at the right moments that manages to fill us with a swelling sense of sadness.
“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” — the first single released off of Sleep Well Beast back in May — finds vocalist Matt Berninger singing “I cannot explain it any other, any other way” over four chords and a staccato guitar riff. But that belies the way in which his voice erupts from a low gravelly crooning into a pleading, aching upper register. Not to be outdone, guitarist Aaron Dessner bursts in with the other guitar solo of the album, shredding an ‘80s rock vibe that again reiterates that this album is something new, something more present for the band.
In the vein of new things, many are likely going to bring up Sleep Well Beast’s brush with electronic instrumentation in its orchestration. Most obvious in the opening of “I’ll Still Destroy You,” the drum track-synced electronics are much like those in Bon Iver’s 22, A Million — at first surprising, but over time emerging as a perfectly natural extension of what the band has been creating for years. This is a band closely in touch with where the emotional core of its music lies — and its members know how to extract those emotions regardless of what instrumentation they choose to utilize.
Sleep Well Beast is one of this year’s best albums — it is a canvas that The National has saturated with dark undertones and punctuated with chaotic splashes of red and yellow and white. It is an album imbued with a three-dimensionality, a depth that imposes itself on listeners, like stepping off an edge into water that appears deceptively shallow.
It does this not through any particularly complicated technique, but with an exceptional mastery of the elements filling the lower end of the sonic spectrum — blending bass and toms and humming keyboards and Berninger’s deep baritone as the iceberg-under-the-water on which the guitars and electronics rest.
Something about that construction is almost the perfect snapshot of what this year has often felt like — making Sleep Well Beast as poignantly resonant as it is technically impressive.