The National - Sleep Well Beast Album Review
2017 has been a nostalgic period for 2000s era indie fans. Heavyweights from the decade like LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire and Spoon have all released new records and, impressively, each offers some semblance of shift or experimentation in style for these stalwart acts. Now Brooklyn based chamber-pop indie rockers turned global headliners The National find themselves among this list, adopting an eerie and nocturnal electronic palette for their seventh studio album. Taking inspiration from modern releases from their contemporaries like Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens, Sleep Well Beast feels like a step forward for the band, both exploring new themes and emotions lyrically as well as experimenting sonically.
Sadness has always been the foundation on which The National constructs their albums and while in some ways Sleep Well Beast continues this tradition, there is a subtle shift towards acceptance and hope that’s been absent from past releases. Throughout the album, frontman Matt Berninger questions the direction of the lives of himself, his family, his bandmates and his country. He cuts to the core of every melancholic sentiment in his lyrics, revealing the raw and true nature of his fears.
But with tracks like “Walk It Back,” Turtleneck” and “Sleep Well Beast,” Berninger keeps the album from falling into a full acceptance of fate. Berninger sees salvation in his children and the younger generations to escape the white-collar-woes his generation fell into. These songs are political in a way The National have never been before lyrically, focusing more on action than introspection. It’s an interesting direction for The National to take on these handful of songs and it works out a lot better than fans may have predicted.
The majority of the album still holds true to the traditional National feel though. Stories of decaying love are masterfully told in Berninger’s baritone singing over the tight and melodic instrumentation of the band. Stylistic hallmark’s like the Dessner twins’ intricate guitar work and the one-two punch of the Devendorf brothers rhythm section continue to suck listeners in and hold their attention for the entire album’s run time like few, if not any, rock acts today can. But where the albums takes a hard left turn is with the shift towards electronic and synth based details within the instrumentals.
The chamber-pop arrangements that gave past National albums their immediate and signature sound has been noticeably dialed back and in its place are almost other-worldly electronic flourishes that punctuate the emotional moments on the album. It’s here where critics and fans will find themselves divided.
From one perspective, what has always allowed The National to achieve the emotions in their music with such precision has been the ambitious and intricate chamber-pop arrangements that provided the best atmosphere for The National’s songwriting. The electronics here perfectly capture the emotional uneasiness and lack of self-assurance the group is trying to make the listeners feel, providing almost a haunted presence on the tracks that never makes the listener truly feel comfortable.
From the other perspective, what has always made The National beloved in the hearts of their fans is how palatable the emotions of the songs are. When listeners put on The National’s music, they don’t just understand how Berninger and company feel: they feel it along with them. This is, in part, because of the physical presence the live instrumentation of the chamber-pop arrangements possessed. No matter how twisted or ghostly a synth sounds, it cannot capture the same raw emotions a piano, horn, or string instrument can capture.
And this too is a shortcoming of the album as a whole and what makes it impossible to listen to in a vacuum without comparing it to past albums. Listening to The National is a cathartic experience. Albums like the band’s 2007 work Boxer don’t offer the hope and the experimental flourishes found on Sleep Well Beast, but instead make the listener feel the difficult emotions modern society is all too afraid to feel. Whereas past National albums have felt like true emotional experiences, Sleep Well Beast is decidedly and purposefully an artistically ambitious album rather than emotionally ambitious.
But because this is The National, any album from them with ambition is still going to be one of the best of the year. While long term fans may find it below par with the band’s best work, it still succeeds and over performs at doing what it sets out to do. Sleep Well Beast is yet another homerun for The National and continues to build their case as the best independent group to come out of the 2000s.
Chandler Copenheaver is a senior majoring in Public Relations. To contact him, email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Senior / Public Relations