Sleep Well Beast – The National: ‘artistic flare and dark humour’
Sleep Well Beast is an album for the autumn. In a startling return to form since their sixth album Trouble Will Find Me in 2013, Matt Berninger and co. have once again brought together their feelings of loneliness, mid-life blues, marital problems and stagnation into an artistic outpouring of musical musings, packed into approximately 57 minutes. It’s quite an achievement.
Now, dear reader, you could easily be forgiven for asking the question: “That’s all well and good, Henry, but haven’t you just described, well, every The National album, like, ever?” In response, I would probably nod my head in agreement, and not in any way out of a fear of confrontation. However, whilst it is valid to point out that these sentiments are the focus of many of The National’s previous creations, this album is certainly not an embodiment of the stagnation it speaks of. The band has furthered their artistic limits, experimenting with a combination of electronic beats, reflected most prominently in the song ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, to complement Bryan Davendorf’s distinctive drumming style that at once feels both proactive and reactive to the other band member’s instrumentation.
Consider the first and final singles released from the album: ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ and ‘Day I Die’. The drum tracks, whilst technically difficult, play second fiddle, or maybe second percussion, to the more prominent gritty guitar and bass riffs laid down by the Dessner twins and Davendorf’s brother Scott. It is only when you make a point of specifically focussing on the percussion track that Davendorf’s technical ability is apparent. It is an uncommon and much understated ability to be able to drive the rhythm section of the band forward yet at the same time allowing the other band members the manoeuvrability to be artistically creative – and manoeuvre they do.
Whilst Berninger’s lyrics have often focussed on separation and alienation, they are at once incredibly human. They have a remarkable way of reading like a train of consciousness, with somewhat random interjections, be it emotions or political satire, (exemplified in the upbeat, nay humorous, track ‘Turtleneck’, which suggests that “The poor, they leave their cell-phones in the bathrooms of the rich”) which initially appear at odds with the song structure, but on reflection are testament to Berninger’s incredible ability as a wordsmith. On the eighth track of the record, ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, Berninger sings about the effects of self-medication, drawing an analogy between the “molecules and the caplets” and Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets, before reflecting on his longing to see his daughter and how she will have grown up since they saw each other last: “Put your heels against the wall, I swear you got little bit taller since I saw you.”
The National’s artistic flare and dark humour is perhaps best summarised in the third track of the album ‘Walk It Back’. The song begins almost as an electro-pop number, before descending into a somewhat disturbing political exposé regarding a statement attributed to George W. Bush’s political advisor Karl Rove, read by Lisa Hannigan, ending – “We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do”. Berninger has cheekily added that he’d like to give Rove a portion of the royalties from the song, despite Rove denying ever having said the words. The quote is backed eerily by Aaron Dessner’s oscillating guitar sounds and Davendorf’s metronomic drums, the sinister political undertones matching Berninger’s personal angst to form bleak a listening-experience.
Unlike previous albums High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me, there is less of an emphasis on individual singles. Whilst many albums reflect an artist’s desire for sales, with song after song of sellable insignificances, it is commendable that Sleep Well Beast has obviously been crafted to be experienced as an album in its totality. There are few songs on it that I would find myself listening to in isolation (except perhaps, on a personal note, ‘Carin at the Liquor Store’, which allows me to hone in on my (lack of) talent as a faux-Berninger baritone impressionado), but, if I’m taking the time to listen to an album in its entirety, there aren’t many recently released albums that could supersede Sleep Well Beast.
From the opening to the ultimate track, ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ to the album’s namesake ‘Sleep Well Beast’, not much is resolved in the way of emotional progress. But why should there be? As with other records released by The National, what is most admired by their fans is their emotional frankness, reflected both lyrically and musically. They don’t shy away from emotional fragility, nor do they sacrifice sincerity for sales.