The National's new album review: Sleep Well Beast paints a painful break-up so that you might avoid one

Amid a stinging account of a messy divorce, The National continue to penetrate your thoughts better than any shrink

Christopher Hooton
Friday 29 June 2018 13:45
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We tend to think of the 'break-up album' as being about either immersion in melodramatic love songs, a kind of flushing of our emotions by overexposure, or else kicking love to the curb with a kind of 'I don't need no man/woman' bravado. Both of these prescriptions are reductive and silly and ultimately not going to help with your overcast symptoms. I've been on The National for years now though and can highly recommend it, a third type of audial medication that involves looking, as though down the barrel of a gun, at what went wrong, allowing the regrets and the longings to reach every nerve ending in your body, finding some catharsis in this, and then, if you're lucky, moving on.

Sleep Well Beast, the band's seventh album, came to me in the middle of a break-up - more specifically, one of those 'lots of little tears that leave the thing beyond salvage' break-ups, and has been a fountain of solace to occasionally drink from in the past few weeks/months/I forget. "It’s about marriages falling apart," frontman Matt Berninger said of it. "I’m happily married, but marriage is hard and my wife and I are writing the lyrics together about our own struggles, and it’s difficult to write, but it’s saving my marriage." The album functions as kind of the inverse of a blueprint; a detailed schematic of what will befall you in your relationships if you don't act now. It is not a happy album.

The National have honed a fairly consistent sound across their discography, but Sleep Well Beast is probably the biggest departure both in terms of genre and lyrics. Musically, electronic influences are creeping in and the songs are more richly, thoughtfully layered than ever, no doubt a result of guitarist Bryce Dessner's forays into film composing (he recently did the score for Iñárritu's The Revenant). Lyrically, meanwhile, Berninger opts for a more oblique, ambiguous, even pleasingly inscrutable style, putting aside the ornately poetic sentences of earlier albums for something more blunt that seems to take its cues from Iceberg Theory. Sometimes, this a shame and I miss the 'Out of my league I have birds in my sleeves and I want to rush in with the fools' lines of yesteryear, but, with others, it is completely devastating and his best lyrical work yet.

It's hard to rank the album alongside the band's six preceding LPs as they always take quite some time to seep into the bones; I've spent nearly three months with Sleep Well Beast now but it still feels like it's holding charms that will unfurl with more listens. It is an incredibly cohesive album though - it operates in its own defined space and has an intense frostiness to, which, for The National, is saying something. Here are some scattered thoughts on individual tracks.

'Nobody Else Will Be There' opens the album, a song which, if it were a town, would be twinned with Trouble Will Find Me's opener, 'I Should Live In Salt'. It sounds like wandering through a city park on a cold day in a big coat, absent-mindedly kicking stones, pondering the kind of the day the pigeons have had, and trying not think about her/him. It skewers those moments where there is nothing left to say to each other but still, there you are, both stood dumb and motionless:

'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?'

'Day I Die' follows, a more uptempo but still very melancholic track that lyrically evokes the scattered jumble of denial, nostalgia, anger, sadness and thoughts of death that come with all severe break-ups.

'Walk It Back' is perhaps my favourite song on the album and the biggest departure for the band, slowly building around rubbery synth stabs, advancing on you and beginning to glow like a street lamp heating up.

Curiously, it includes a semi-famous quote from a George W. Bush aide about the world's departure from the 'reality-based community', at once a nod to the situation the US currently finds itself in (The National are very engaged in politics) and seemingly also an analogy for the dissociative effect of losing a love.

A chorus of female voices rise like departing birds to announce lead single 'The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness', another track with political undertones that features the closest the band are apt to want to get to a 'catchy guitar riff'.

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'Born to Beg' is a difficult and confrontational listen, exposing the tendencies and the reliances we're usually too ashamed to truly recognise in ourselves, as it declares:

'I was born to beg for you.

I'd cry, crawl. I'd do it all. Teakettle love, I'd do anything.'

There's usually at least one louder, more brash song on a National album and, in this case, it's 'Turtleneck'. I love to hear Matt cut loose to the point of almost screaming, but this one, for me, isn't as memorable as a 'Mr. November' or a 'Slipping Husband'.

'Empire Line' is next, and when it opens with the words 'You've been sleeping for miles', you can imagine these miles stretching out all around - a vista of void - as the melody rattles out into the ether. It all evokes the way a relationship falling apart can seem so claustrophobic during each falter, but in a macro sense it's all so sprawling and inexorable. A sort of slow motion mania builds, as Matt sings:

'I've been talking to about you to myself.'

Yep. We've all been there.

There's a sense of being lost and disorientated to 'I'll Still Destroy You', like trying to locate your boarding gate on half a Valium. Lyrical highlights include brutally succinct self-assessments like 'I have helpless friends and bad tastes in liquids' and 'I'm just trying to stay in touch with anything I'm still in touch with', and the imagist gem 'This one's like the wilderness without the world.'

Drummer Bryan Devendorf switches out his usual floor tom and hi-hat-heavy beats for a sample pad in the 'Guilty Party' intro, as an electronic sound comes to the fore again.

'I say your name, I say I'm sorry' Matt recounts, and I'm reminded how when we choose to call each other by name, it's usually bad news. 'It's nobody's fault, no guilty party,' he continues, 'I just got nothing, nothing left to say.' If there are Kübler-Ross model stages to break-ups like there are for grief, this track depicts the moment of despondency; things are beyond blame and anger, it's just about grim acceptance, exhaustion, maybe even boredom. These words are met with such a beautiful, fragile guitar line and the song contains, for me, the most poignant line on the album:

'Another year gets away, another summer of love.

I don't know why I care, We miss it every summer.'

We both want to get back on track so much but what are we actually doing about it? Time cheerfully marks our inability to grow up and reconcile.

'Carin at the Liquor Store' (presumably named after Matt's wife, Carin Besser) is a more straightforward piano ballad in the vein of TWFM's 'Pink Rabbits', centred around the kind of riff someone might clank out on a piano in an LA apartment about three hours after dinner when all the wine's been finished.

I became incredibly enamoured of 'Dark Side of the Gym' at live shows, and while the moreish guitar line, unfortunately, sits lower and more hidden in the mix on record, this is still a stand out track; a velveteen, vespertine waltz with a woozy, dreamlike quality. It conjures some mad, wonderful imagery, for instance:

'I have dreams of anonymous castrati​, singing to us from the trees.'

Remembered that illuminated house Tony Soprano nearly enters during his coma dream? This song would be playing on a gramophone in the courtyard.

'Sleep Well Beast' closes the album and looks back at everything that's come to pass. It has that irresistible feel that qualifies it as a 'driving song', the hood of the car eating up the white stripes on the road in the night. Thlp thlp thlp thlp thlp.

After all the psychic and emotional confusion and toing and froing, everything suddenly becomes painfully clear to the protagonist and the lyrics are transparent:

'Go back to sleep, let me try, let me figure it out. How to get us back to the place where we were when we first went out.'

But then the stone is kicked down the road:

'I'll tell you about it sometime, the time we left.'

The album never makes it overt and explicit, but a sense of responsibility lurks, implores under its surface: Tell them now. Before it's too late.

This would be a lot easier if we didn't incessantly cannibalise our own thoughts and impulses. Conversations in our heads always have two sides, whether it's our warring good and bad impulses or the meta narratives and the way we think about things and then think about how we think about things. This dichotomy can drive a person insane, and this distracting, secondary cerebral faculty is perhaps impossible to kill; the best we can hope for is to keep it dormant. As Matt concludes:

'I'll still destroy you someday, sleep well beast. You as well beast.'

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Sleep Well Beast is out 8 September.

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