Scroll through this year’s record release schedule, and you could be mistaken for having a little early 2000s deja vu. Already we’ve had the returns of Broken Social Scene, LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire. Now it’s the turn of that era’s other big hitter, The National. Whilst both LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire chose to broach larger issues on their respective releases (one successfully, the other, well, embarrassingly in places), the Cincinnati outfit have made a more internal, personal album. Somewhat mysteriously, in the process they have created their most open and compassionate record yet.
But fear not, these romantic miserablists remain as delightfully dejected as ever. It’s just that where their last two albums were touched by a sense of latent resignation, Sleep Well Beast finds them in a more determined mood. Matt Berninger is still wrestling with familiar themes like self-destruction, and retaining an endless perplexity towards relationships and communication, but here more than ever shards of light reveal subtle hints of a new found optimism.
Guilty Party is a welcome and honest meditation on the difficulties of marriage that is at least trying to find a way through, rather than succumb to the strain. And Nobody Else Will Be There makes a stab at understanding what the other person needs rather than settling for internal focus: “I thought that when I stuck my neck out/I’d get you out of your shell/My faith is sick and my skin is thin as ever/I need you alone.” It’s an openly tender track that dilutes the neurosis of Secret Meeting and rejects the fatalism of About Today.
There’s always a danger that Berninger could fall into an unpleasant quagmire of self-obsession, but he avoids those pitfalls by being self-aware and self-deprecating. Walk It Back acknowledges an obsession with his perceived ruinous nature (“Don’t wanna fuck it up”), but he’s also patently aware of a tendency towards “Mothering myself to bits.” His preoccupation with booze also winds its way onto the album, but refreshingly it’s neither defiantly celebratory or overly concerned, just an honest exploration (“I have helpless friendship/And bad taste in liquids”) that ends on an upbeat note: “It’s just the lights coming on.”
This System Only Dreams In Total Darkness is probably the most classically National song on the record. As the most outward looking track it’s also unsurprisingly wracked with confusion and paralysed by the inability to fix things. Yet – as so often is the case when shit gets too heavy on their records – the song’s weight is liberated by the emotional gut punch of Berninger breaking free of his brow beaten baritone for the stirring chorus. It may be a predictable move, but it’s no less satisfying for it.
Musically, the band has delved into more exploratory territory. The Day I Die sees a return to the more interesting avenues the Davendorf brothers’ rhythm section found themselves playing with on Alligator. I’ll Still Destroy You includes an almost Radiohead-esque beat, and the electronic dappling of Born To Beg is a little more free and experimental. Overall the record is looser and more relaxed than both High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me, and although they haven’t made a return to the clattering chaos of Alligator, there is an underlying energy not truly felt since Boxer. Turtleneck is perhaps the most energetic cut, and it’s also the most fun the National have had in some years. Whilst not an entirely successful effort at being arse-kickingly noisy it’s great to hear the band let loose with a playful vocal and the Dessner brothers tearing shreds off their guitars.
The far gentler Carin at the Liquor Store is another example of effortless balladry that they have proved themselves so adept at with earlier tracks like Pink Rabbits and Slow Show. And whilst Dark Side of the Gym must be one of the year’s best song titles, it’s also a dreamy lullaby, and possibly the most encouraging song they’ve ever composed. Equally, amongst Empire Line’s glitchy beats Berninger optimistically implores: “Can’t you find a way?” The record concludes with the creak and whirr of Sleep Well Beast, that vows, “I’ll destroy you some day, sleep well beast.” It may be primed with sadness, but this is as confident and unfaltering as they have ever sounded.
Sleep Well Beast is as sad a record as The National have ever made, and yet it also feels like their most hopeful. As ever their music is littered with failed attempts to communicate, fear of fucking everything up, and a general sense that life is a tricky old thing to navigate, and yet these songs feel like their most resolute attempt to overcome those difficulties and to find a way. Oddly in these globally dramatic times, these tales of very ordinary problems are peculiarly comforting.