Sleep Well Beast creeps up on you. You press play and, out of the silence emerges “Nobody Else Will Be There”. A track which begins as delicately as The National have ever sounded, yet doesn’t lose any of the monumental presence or gravitas shown by their previous record Trouble Will Find Me. Two-thirds of the way through the song, it morphs. More instruments join in, mirroring The National’s career, the sound becomes more expansive.
By near-consensus, critics adore the National. Over time, the US band’s worldwide sales have nudged higher and higher, while each successive album’s reviews hover between four and five stars. Though, even now, with their previous album reaching number three in both the US and the UK, the band haven’t followed some of their contemporaries and been attracted by sounds more associated with arena tours (despite doing a full arena tour in support of their last record, they haven’t ‘done a U2’). The album’s second track gets close to that sound, with screaming guitars and a driving drum-line, but aside from that, this is a band at ease with how they sound – devastatingly understated, recorded perfectly.
The album’s lyrics deal with growing older, of families, of being married and still trying to make sense of the world. Tracks like “Day I Die” deal with the failure of a relationship. The mention of Uncle Valentine in the track reminds of the excellent track “Valentine’s Day” off of David Bowie’s penultimate record, The Next Day. On several tracks, the band aren’t afraid to show their politics (they campaigned for Obama and Clinton).
Where the album excels is the description of mundane frustrations. For example, leaving a party later than the narrator would like is explored in the album opener. The lead singer of The National, Matt Berninger, has a lovely turn of phrase. In just describing leaving said party:
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?
— “Nobody Else Will Be There”
Whether softer in the first track on the album, or frenetic as on “Turtleneck” where he sounds manic, confused and just a little like Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, singing “This is so embarrassing”, Berninger has one of the most iconic voices in contemporary rock.
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Key to Sleep Well Beast is how good it sounds. Irrespective of the tempo of the track, whether it’s heavier or softer, Aaron Dessner (one of the guitarists and one half of one of the duo of brothers in the band) has done a marvellous job of producing the record – in particular Bryan Devendorf’s remarkable drumming.
Ultimately, The National appear content, not just with the gradual evolution of their sound, but also the fact that they’ve achieved their success on their terms. Even if they’re not totally comfortable with the world around them. The album isn’t revolutionary, but it is one that you might just come to cherish.