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Album Of The Week: The National’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’

On September 5, 2017

Meet Me In The Bathroom is one of the best rock books probably ever, and it’s packed with anecdotes that you can’t believe writer Lizzy Goodman was able to coax out of people, the kind that have launched a Twitter beef between Ryan Adams and the Strokes. Two of the funniest anecdotes, though, were from National frontman Matt Berninger, who first appears telling the story of what it was like to see the Strokes in their heyday, and being worried Casablancas was going to run off with his girlfriend:

“I remember Julian Casablancas looking down the bar at the girl who I was with. He was looking at us and giving her bedroom eyes. I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, this guy can do anything!’ Like, literally, if he had walked up and kissed her, she would have walked out the door with him, you know? I was like, ‘Fuck, that guy is cool.'”

The other is Berninger remembering having to squeeze past photographers for Spin and the members of Interpol who were getting their pics taken for a feature on Turn on the Bright Lights as he made his way into the National’s rehearsal space (which was next door) after putting in a day at work.

Those anecdotes are interesting, and not only because Berninger comes off like a NYC rock Zelig: the National were technically part of the same scene that spawned every significant New York band of this century, and despite all odds, despite them being obsessive perfectionists, despite them not making a single song that has broken through to rock radio, they’re the last ones standing, the last ones making music that is still vital and still better than the last album, that has never broken up (What up, LCD Soundsystem?).

So here the National are with Sleep Well Beast, their seventh album since 2001, and first since 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. Recorded in upstate New York at their homebase studio Long Pond, Sleep Well Beast is one of the band’s strongest albums, one that pushes their sound into new territories, and is as lyrically searching and probing as ever. Where their past albums struggled lyrically about what happens when you’ve done everything in your life “right” and you’re still unfulfilled, this album tackles what happens when you’ve made peace with always struggling with fulfillment, but you’re still trying to negotiate a peaceful existence with your partner—who has their own battles with their own personal fulfillment—in whatever future you can have together.

In the years since Trouble Will Find Me, the most public National product was The Day of the Dead, the monster compilation that found a bevy of indie artists covering the Grateful Dead. The album was helmed by the Dessner brothers, and while the National are an insular, unto-themselves kind of band, it’s hard not to see the effect of spending months living in the Grateful Dead yurt on the sound of Sleep Well Beast. “Turtleneck” sounds like guitar fireworks. “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” has maybe the first guitar riff hook in the National songbook, a snarled, ripping little figure that dances over and around the main melody, before exploding into a “Whoa, dude” guitar solo at the end. And “Day I Die” might be the most rocking, ripping song the National have done since “Mr. November.”

But there’s also a pronounced electronic influence on Sleep Well Beast, mostly rendered in textures that provide a bedrock for the rest of the song. “I’ll Still Destroy You,” the title track, and “Guilty Party” have sonics that wouldn’t be out of place on a Radiohead album. The end of “Dark Side Of The Gym” also features probably the most spaced out, jammy portion of any National song.

Lyrically, Sleep Well Beast is one of Matt Berninger’s strongest outings. Lead single “The System Only Sleeps In Total Darkness” tackles not having any answer for why things are the way they are, and fighting not let the feeling that everything will just work out take over. There’s a song about how loving someone sometimes feels like begging (“Born to Beg”) and a song about getting high and fighting with your partner about whether or not you have a future (“Day I Die”). But the centerpiece of the album is “Guilty Party,” a song about the complications of marriage, and how resentments and familiarity build to the point where neither side feels like they’re getting anything out of the marriage. It’s the long tail of “Slow Show,” what happens when you’ve hurried home all you can and the only thing left to do is keep track of the “Summers of Love” that pass between you. It’s a devastating song, that ends with this chorus:

“I say your name /

I say I'm sorry /

I'm the one doing this /

There's no other way /

It's nobody's fault /

No guilty party /

I just got nothing, nothing left to say”

That the National are still out here, writing songs as brutally honest and devastating as this isn’t just great for us, it’s remarkable. Over these last 16 years, they’ve taken us from what it feels like to be a late-20-something looking for something, anything more and now they’re here in their 40s voicing concern to what it’s like to strive to be your best in middle age—and maybe failing interpersonally—while making the best music of their lives.

Profile Picture of Andrew Winistorfer
Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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