I read something recently—an early evaluation of Sleep Well Beast—that referred to The National as ‘the American Radiohead.’ We’re always searching for an American Radiohead, aren’t we? It’s a term that I’ve heard tossed around before—I think at one point, I feel like Brand New may have been called that following the release of The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me, but I could be mistaken.
Despite the fact that both Radiohead and The National are my two favorite bands, I don’t know if I would have put together a comparison like that on my own—the piece in question goes on to discuss the similarities between the two, including the classical composition work done outside of the band, the inclusion of siblings, etc.
And upon further consideration, I guess I can see it.
Both bands have, at their core, the same lineup now as they did when they first started out; both have been long running (Radiohead for a little longer, obviously), and most importantly, both have tried to grow and evolve with each subsequent record. Radiohead have certainly come a long way from “Creep,” and The National are miles and miles beyond their shambling, humble, acoustic beginnings found on their self-titled effort.
Despite what the piss take review from Consequence of Sound implied (this isn’t a political record, and I cannot stress that enough), and despite those heralding it as The National making a ‘rock record’ again (it isn’t really that either), Sleep Well Beast finds the band successfully shaking the growing pains that they struggled with on 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, and moving, with relative ease, into new, surprising, and exciting sonic territory.
Phrases like “slow burning” and “dark and brooding” are nearly synonymous with almost every National record—it’s what they do best, and Sleep Well Beast is no exception. It’s not their darkest record, but it is their most dense and complicated by far. I stop short of calling it a concept album, but it’s a collection of songs that are almost all closely connected thematically.
Sleep Well Beast comes from an interesting place.
It’s not a record full of love songs, and it’s not a divorce record. The band’s unwitting frontman, Matt Berninger, and his wife, Carin Besser, are still married—Besser, in fact, helped co-write a number of the lyrics on this album, something that, Berninger has explained in interviews, helped his relationship with her. Sleep Well Beast, for lack of a better description, is a ‘marriage record.’
Since their 2005 breakthrough, Alligator, Berninger has written about accessible, common ideas in inaccessible ways. Alligator was a youthful record, all release and no tension; its stellar follow up, Boxer, was about easing into adulthood—all tension, and no release. High Violet was the band’s pinnacle—a culmination of everything they had worked toward for a decade, and it found Berninger beginning to move away from the fragmented, evocative imagery he favored in his lyrics, as he dissected the continued pratfalls of adulthood—being a husband and a father; the same can be said for the content of Trouble Will Find Me, though the results were not nearly as successful.
The crux of The National‘s Sleep Well Beast is that marriage is hard; being an adult in 2017 is hard—but we’re going to try to make it through.
The album opens up with one its most evocative tracks, the incredibly moody “Nobody Else Will Be There,” hypnotically structured around the loop of a percussive guitar chug and various string shimmers, before the strong and confident piano comes in, leading the way as Berninger’s vocals barely rise above a mumbled whisper. Here, he delivers some of the best on the record—or at least, for me, some of the most identifiable: “Why are we still out here holding our coats? We look like children. Goodbyes always take us half an hour—can’t we just go home?”
Sleep Well Beast is The National’s longest album—nearly an hour—and the first half of it, at least, is sequenced in such a way to present an even give and take pacing wise. While “Nobody Else” burns so slowly, the album kicks into high gear with the rollicking and anthemic “Day I Die,” before slowing things way, way down with the experimental “Walk it Back,” which boasts some heavy use of synthesizers, and a bit of sampled speech that may or may not have something to do with Karl Rove. It also finds Berninger’s return to ‘talk singing,’ something he did quite a bit of on the band’s earliest material before he gained more confidence in his voice.
The mumbled, disorienting talk singing paired with the washes of synthesizer can be a surprise to some listeners—they were to me, at first. But here’s the thing: the band started out using synthesizers and drum machines on both their self-titled album and on Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers—just very minimally. And they began returning to them on Trouble Will Find Me, attempting to work them in where needed.
Musically, “Walk it Back” is maybe one of the album’s least successfully executed—unless it was meant to conjure the feeling of stumbling around, loathing yourself. Then, it was very successful; and I feel like the Karl Rove reference near the song’s conclusion is partially responsible for what would lead one to erroneously feel that Sleep Well Beast is a politically leaning record.
Sleep Well Beast is true rollercoaster of emotion and tonality.
The album’s first single (released in the dark ages of May), “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” still slays with its searing guitar solos, synthesizer beeps and boops, dreamy backing vocals that swirl in the ether, and chugging rhythm pick the pacing back up after “Walk it Back,” before it descends again into somber balladry—“Born to Beg” swoons like a sad, drunken sing-a-long, and would also fit in well within the second half of Trouble Will Find Me.
“Turtleneck” sticks out (pun intended) as a bit of McGuffin on the album. The most unhinged the band has sounded in ages, it’s this song that could lead listeners to believe that Sleep Well is a ‘rock’ record. It isn’t—not really. This is just, like, the one loud song on it. Also apparently a ‘political’ song because it was written the day after the 2016 election, the song is less about politics, and according to Berninger, more about sex, fashion, and confusion. His delivery, on the verge of his larynx shredding caterwauling last seen in 2005, is more in line with his maligned side project El Vy.
Typical of nearly every album by The National, Sleep Well Beast really hits its stride within its second half—even when it gets almost too glitchy and experimental for its own good, the thematic line from song to song is much clearer, and the emotional weight is much heavier. Just as the “I was afraid I’d eat your brains ‘cuz I’m evil” line in “Conversation 16” is not really about zombies, a majority of the lyrics in this second half are incredibly personal for Berninger—specifically the struggle of being a good example for his daughter, as well as being away from her for long periods of time, detailed on the charmingly titled “I’ll Still Destroy You.”
“Guilty Party” is among the band’s finest moments, an haunting and skittering sketch of a conversation—an inadvertent continuation of the conversation that began in 2004 on “About Today,” and a continuation of the stark, honest portrait of life as a depressive; one Beringer has painted in the past, notably on “Pink Rabbits” and “Lemonworld.” “It all catches up to me, all the time,” he laments here in a chilling, plaintive, yet simple statement.
If “Guilty Party” is not so much an argument, but a tense conversation, “Carin at The Liquor Store” is the apology, or at least the assurance that he wants to try to be better.
Sleep Well Beast concludes with another emotional and personally charged pairing—the curiously titled “Dark Side of The Gym,” and the titular track. “Dark Side” serves as a recapitulation of sorts through Berninger’s romance with Besser, while “Sleep Well Beast” brings the album full circle: 11 songs ago, Berninger says “Meet me in the stairwell for a second,” and they’re still there—“We’ve been stuck out here in the hallway for way way too long,” he sings on the song’s opening line, before growing slightly manic—“I’m at a loss…let me figure it out—how to get us back to the place where we were when we first went out.”
The album ends with a reference to the aforementioned “I’ll Still Destroy You,” before Berninger tacks on an marital in-joke: “Sleep well beast/you as well beast,” a line that makes your bedtime ritual with your spouse pale in comparison.
At some point during Sleep Well Beast, I realized that maybe The National really are the American Radiohead, and maybe this is their Kid A, or at the very least, their Kid A moment.
It’s not nearly as confounding or demanding of a listen, but it challenges and changes the dynamic of the band. Yes, they are still a ‘drummer’s band’—even with the added flourishes of skittering drum machines, Bryan Devendorf is nothing short of a miracle behind the kit. And yes, the Dessner twins have expanded their musical palates beyond dueling electric guitar lines to include elaborate string arrangements, dramatic piano, and synth arrays—but they both light up behind their six-strings on the blistering instrumental breaks on “Turtleneck.”
Is Sleep Well Beast The National’s ‘best’ LP yet? That’s completely subjective and debatable, but it is certainly their most comprehensive sonically—both in creating a self-contained aesthetic, and in trying to wrangle and reconcile who they were with who they want to be. It also may be their most relatable lyrically, with Berninger and Besser finding the right balance between pathos, humor, vague fragmented fiction, and stark fact.
Even when it doesn’t entirely work, it still works within the context, creating an impressive and admirable meditation on the human condition.
Kevin Krein is a Minnesota based writer, and has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones since January 2013. For nearly as long, he’s been contributing to Bearded Gentlemen; and for nearly as long, he wrote “The Bearded Life” column for the Southern Minn Scene magazine. He currently writes “The Column of Disquiet” for the recently launched Next Ten Words, and his writing has appeared on Spectrum Culture and in River Valley Woman.
He is a vegan, a huge jerk, and above all else, a cool rabbit dad.