The US quintet’s first offering in four years, mainly recorded at Aaron Dessner’s new home studio. By Mike Barnes.
The National Sleep Well Beast 4AD. CD/DL/LP
THERE HOPEFULLY comes a point in every band’s life where they suddenly hit their stride, where their instrumental chops and creativity are in sync, and all this chimes with the expectations of their audience. For The National it was 2010 when they released the big selling High Violet. As a stylistic template it was a curious mix of the introverted and the epic, a shadowy and brooding sound with guitars and electronics stirred by Bryan Devendorf’s circling drum patterns into an inward-looking dynamic that makes the group’s considerable power feel oddly internalised. The follow-up, 2014’s Trouble Will Find Me, had much in common with its predecessor, although it had a bittersweet, lighter, more open sound. In anticipation of Sleep Well Beast, all The National’s upcoming UK tour dates are sold out. But this time round they made a point of looking at their music from different angles
– even inviting members of the public to jam along with backing tracks in some Berlin sessions to generate ideas. Although they haven’t, to use a phrase, fucked with the formula exactly, this new material finds them in more experimental mode Nobody Else Will Be There is a sombre piano based overture and then we are into more familiar territory on Day I Die, with perpetual motion drums and ornamental guitar architecture from Aaron and Bryce Dessner. There’s high drama on Turtleneck, with its sweeping choruses and wah-wah guitars mouthing licentious kisses, but Sleep Well Beast is generally less overtly guitar based, with a lot of activity going on under the surface – particularly keyboards, samples and Bryce Dessner’s strings. On Born To Beg a piano plays simply against an electronic pulse with vocalist Matt Berninger backed by what sounds like an eerily processed gospel choir. Berninger says that, lyrically speaking, Sleep Well Beast is about “coming clean with things you’d rather not” and he certainly seems to have dredged up some remarkable stuff from his subconscious. Over the gently throbbing drums and synths and finely etched guitar lines of Walk It Back he sings, “I’ll walk through Lawrencetown, along the tracks/My own body in my arms but I won’t collapse”, intoning the song as if perplexed by his own findings. Berninger seems in touch with his id once more on the sinister but breezily melodic I’ll Still Destroy You, and mutters his way through similar lyrical concerns on the title track like an actor in a mumblecore movie. Synthetic and real drum beats bounce around like basketballs in an intricately wrought soundscape of looped flute and helium-high vocal phrases, electronics, piano and some creaky guitar playing. It’s all
beautifully put together and closes the album with The National gazing further into the future.
The National: it’s all going on under the surface.