The National - Sleep Well Beast
- Released: September 8, 2017
- Label: 4AD
The National return with more refined sound on mature 7th album.
The National have always been a hardworking band, preferring to keep plugging away rather burning up in a short glorious moment, like contemporaries The Strokes. The longevity suits them well, with the latest album displaying new levels of musicianship and songcraft hard-won over the years.
It will surprise no-one to learn that Sleep Well Beast sounds closest to it's predecessor, Trouble Will Find Me, and some tracks feel like they could have been included on either album. But on the whole, Sleep Well Beast is both tighter and more experimental. In the 4 years since the predecessor, the members have pursued various side projects (EL VY, Day of The Dead, LNZNDRF), which seem to have borne fruit in providing the band with more tools and slightly different approaches to building songs. The youthful playfulness of earlier albums and songs seems largely absent (there feels no place on Sleep Well Beast for couplets like "I know you put in the hours to keep me in sunglasses"), replaced instead with a more mature attitude and subtler approach to songs. Throughout the album Matt's lyrics now feel a step more abstract and reflective - they simply sound like they come from the slightly scarred soul of an older man - as perhaps they have.
The real shining point of Sleep Well Beast is the step forward in the orchestration, composition and production of the album. The overall sound is sparser and more subtle, but it feels like the timbre of every note has been bled over. There is more electronica than previous records, but it's used judiciously, often to provide a different percussive texture, as on the opening track Nobody Else Will Be There.
The album starts out strongly and reaches a high point on tracks 3 and 4; Walk It Back and the single The System only Dreams in Total Darkness. Walk it Back is the most experimental piece, using synths and samples prominently and centered around a spoken word fragment based on a Ron Suskind article on the treatment of truth and facts in the Dubya administration. The theme is continued on The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, which appears to relate to the current strange state of US and world politics.
Exactly half way through the album comes the track Turtleneck, a rockier number that sounds like a leftover from Alligator. It's serves to break up the otherwise slower pace of the album, but feels slightly out-of-place.
The second half of the album isn't as strong, but reaches another high point with the love song Carin at the Liquor Store, which is based around a simple haunting melody by Aaron. Dark Side of the Gym continues the emotional sound with a surprisingly sentimental arrangement and lyrics - "I'm going to keep you in love with me" sings Matt, though closer inspection reveals darker tones - "for a while" continues the chorus.
The album closes with the title track and the most experimental sound on the album. It's never going to be a single or live anthem, but brings a thoughtful close to an abstract and reflective album.
My first draft at the closing paragraph stated that Sleep Well Beast isn't The National's finest album, citing a slow-down in the second half as the main issue. That may be true, and there might be some issues with lyrics and music sometimes feeling mismatched, but repeated listens have drawn me in further and further. This album isn't as obvious as previous efforts; it rewards repeated listens and revels in depth and abstraction.