Sleep Well Beast
The National = The Afghan Whigs + Morphine + Leonard Cohen
Sleep Well Beast, the newest offering from Cincinnati natives The National, sees them return to some of the themes and sounds explored on their last release, Trouble Will Find Me. While still draped in the same demeanor and mood they have established over the past half-decade, they return to some moments that remind us of albums Alligator and Boxer.
Produced by guitar players and brothers Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner at Aaron’s studio, Long Pond, in New York, Sleep Well Beast is a bit less granular as a finished product than past albums but still follows suit as an entry into their catalog of rain-soaked ballads. Dealing with topics of yearning, separation and uncertainty, singer Matt Berninger co-wrote this collection of songs with wife Carin Besser.
The album opens as you would expect it to: dark, cryptic and somber without being maudlin. There’s little sunshine here, and it seems that moving to Los Angeles from New York City has changed little of vocalist Berninger’s tune, as he quietly laments, “Can you remind me the building you live in? / I’m on my way / It’s cold again, but New York’s gorgeous / It’s a subway day.” This juxtaposition of cold yet quietly gorgeous is synonymous with the band.
But Berninger’s move hasn’t changed much for the still-Brooklyn-based band, even as The National’s rhythm section (brothers Bryan Devendorf and Scott Devendorf) have been playing in the band LNZNDRF. We hear the brothers providing a steady yet winding rhythm in the opening moments of the album’s second track, “Day I Die,” with Aaron’s (dare I say) The Edge–esque, delay-tinged and overdriven guitar tone laying a stormy lead over Bryce’s rhythm.
“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” the album’s fourth track, features what is perhaps the first guitar solo in the band’s 18-year history. It seems immediately out of place on the album before giving way to a humdrum chorus of, “I can’t explain it any other way.”
Track 5, “Born to Beg,” calls forth more New York ghosts, with Berninger singing, “New York is older / Changing its skin again / It dies every 10 years / Then it begins again,” while Track 6, ”Turtleneck,” is a furrow into a livelier and, at this point in time, an almost out-of-character tune, with a Jamie Hince–meets–Marc Ribot lead guitar squealing in the background, while Berninger’s tenor-baritone echoes Nick Cave. The track is about as upbeat as we’ve heard since Alligator’s “Lit Up” and “Mr. November.”
The album’s tempo slows and brings us back to what we’ve come to know from The National. The track “Empire Line” features a synthesized piano reminiscent of The Antlers’ Hospice, with Berninger yearning, “Can’t you find the way? You are in this, too,” almost accompanying the album’s 10th track, “Carin at the Liquor Store,” which may be the first time Berninger has directly referred to his wife outside of the track “Karen.” It shows us that though the two may be happily married, they’re not immune to the struggles that accompany a relationship.
It’s hard to say if Sleep Well Beast is among their best work to date, and it’s difficult to gauge the band’s growth. From the beginning, the songwriting has been mature and full of introspection. Sleep Well Beast leaves me wondering if The National will ever, finally, record the album we look back on and without question herald as their masterpiece. This may not be that album, but it fits perfectly into their catalog and shows that while things have changed, they still have cohesion and the tired brilliance that has sustained them for so long. –Ryan Sanford