The National: “Sleep Well Beast” Review

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Rating: 8.6/10

On “Sleep Well Beast” we get the pleasure of seeing The National toy with darkness as they expand their sound even further. Returning with their first new album in four years, the band wallows in a rich melancholy, draped in layers of synth to complement the driving anthems we’ve come to know them for.

 

“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” one of the album’s singles, is both catchy and disconcerting, with a triumphant sound that betrays its dark lyrics. The political and the personal collide as lead singer Matt Berninger laments both the darkness and confusion present in his country and inside himself. Is the melancholy that colors both things one and the same?

 

“The system only dreams in total darkness

Why are you hiding from me?

We’re in a different kind of thing now

All night you’re talking to God”

 

The driving rhythms and light synth elements on “Sleep Well Beast” go down easy with the oblique and shifting lyrics the band weaves. On “I’ll Still Destroy You” Berninger documents the temptation to use substances that change our state of mind. He shifts between comparing his vague feelings with images and memories (including his sunburned mother) and finds that his vision of the world has been obscured.

 

“I have no positions

No point of view or vision

I’m just trying to stay in touch with anything I’m still in touch with”

 

Berninger’s baritone has never sounded more rich and vibrant than balanced with the lighter, more ethereal sounds the band uses on “Sleep Well Beast.” They take risks on the album with electronic elements, yet incorporate the sounds into their repertoire as if was most natural thing in the world. Nothing sounds forced here. If anything that band has discovered new ways of juggling forceful rhythm with a subtly melodic song structure, crafting dark, dreamlike pop songs that seem to hang in the air like smoke, even after they are long over.

 

I find myself eerily drawn to the dark web the songs of “Sleep Well Beast” weave around me. It’s as if I’m being led to my own destruction, to the dissolution of all my ideas about love and happiness and anything making any sense at all. When “Day I Die” comes on the fatalism gets turned up another few notches, and Berninger’s voice rings out above the warlike drums:

 

I don’t need you, I don’t need you
Besides I barely ever see you anymore
When I do it feels you’re only halfway there
Young mothers love me even ghosts of
Girlfriends call from Cleveland
They will meet me anytime and anywhere

The day I die, the day I die
Where will we be?
The day I die, the day I die
Where will we be?

 

Such intense shifting of perspective only feeds the harnessed frenzy of the album. One minute Berninger is dreaming of sleeping with other people, and then in the next he’s imagining dying alongside his wife. Suddenly the tightly packed and intricate arrangements of “Sleep Well Beast” feel like the only way of processing the complicated emotions of being in a relationship. The musical desperation is full of angst and helplessness, but has delivered one of The National’s most complex and entertaining records yet.

 

 

 

 

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