The National are seen by many as inaccessible and, more often, boring. It’s true that they are not the archetypal rockstars that the current climate demands, chews up and spits out again – lead vocalist and writer-in-chief Matt Berninger gave up a career in advertising in his thirties to start the band with school friends – but it says a lot about the Cincinnati natives that throughout their twenty-year plus career, they’ve persevered with the ‘dad rock’, the suits and the personal stories of the dread, anxiety and fear that permeate normal, everyday life and have, by now, crafted a sound that is inimitable and gorgeous.
Although this unambiguous self-identity is what has made their albums stand strong against the tides of change and the criticism that has often sought to belittle them or write them off, it’s also what makes their detractors think their claims have credence. Berninger’s deep, croaking register more often portrays the sinister and the anxious than the glorious and adrenaline inducing, while the Dessner brothers’ guitars carve emotion out of thin air by doing as little as possible, in direct opposition to our idea of what a ‘rock band’ should be. On the second track of Sleep Well Beast that format is broken for the first time, with Aaron cracking out a meandering, contortionist solo in the middle of previously released single ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’. It feels like a demonstration of the experimentalism Berninger has promised in the build up to the record’s release. But, while plenty more examples of such diversions from the norm lie within, the unmistakable truth still remains: this is a band who are moving at their own pace, making music they feel like making, and who are by now the undisputed masters of their unique craft – of which Sleep Well Beast is a glorious development.
Sleep Well Beast sees The National show a side to themselves that we’ve only half seen before. ‘Turtleneck’ sits in the middle of the album, and, like the aforementioned ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’, employs rollicking guitars above Bryan Davendorf’s uncharacteristically powerful drums. Both are songs that tackle large-scale issues, with Berninger noting vitriolically in the former that “they’ll just get whatever my salvation gave them”; it’s one part of what Berninger himself called a ‘release’ in a recent interview with NPR; one which could easily be of frustration towards, as he puts it ‘certain inescapable people nowadays’. It’s teeth-bearing that hasn’t quite been seen since the fervent, unashamedly out of control days of Alligator‘s ‘Mr. November’ and its associated live performances, but to which has clearly been added the refinement and nuance of their intervening work: the controlled, calculated build and release of Trouble Will Find Me‘s ‘Graceless’ springs to mind, the influence of which can be felt here in the growling, primal and simultaneously taught chorus of this record’s most ferocious moment.
This isn’t the only uncharted territory we’re taken to: the album’s closer and title track layers ghostly, choral voices over discordant pianos, while Berninger’s leathery register rumbles at its lowest pitch as the album nears its conclusion – a final crescendo consisting of a miscellany of intermittent, alien-like guitar sounds and glinting synths. Meanwhile, Berninger’s lyrics here are some of his most openly self-referential – and bravest – yet. ‘Guilty Party’ heart-wrenchingly concedes “I know it’s not working / I’m no holiday… We just got nothing / Nothing left to say” in what effectively serves as a theoretical marriage counselling session between Berninger and his wife and co-writer Carin Besser – who is the subject of the ‘Pink Rabbits’-esque ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’, which follows directly afterwards. The drums flutter with the character’s heartbeat and the guitars delicately fidget like knotted nerves. It’s achingly painful, and achingly beautiful.
And this is when The National are at their best. Detractors write them off as boring and overly sombre, but to expect fist-in-the-air head banging and dime-a-dozen romantic sentiments from a National album is to misunderstand the point. The National are normal people with everyday struggles, and their brilliance lies in the capturing of these moments in the situations in which they arise. Opener ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ takes its title from the all-too-relatable need to just ‘go home’, where no one else is around; its protagonist searching for the support of a partner who wasn’t there (“Where were you back there / When I needed your help?”). Meanwhile ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ uses breathy synth and electric drums to paste over the unenviable feeling of inevitably passing on negative traits to one’s children – something Berninger is coming to terms with as a recent father.
This is an album that sees flawed, real characters coming to terms with their own feelings and flaws, and Berninger’s use of imagery and metaphor, coupled with the rich sonic tapestry to be found in each track conjure universal emotion from personal scenarios masterfully. The National have already proven themselves masters of emotionally brimming indie rock; Sleep Well Beast has made them untouchable. In an age where countless fears, anxieties and uncertainties bubble under the surface across the world, it’s never been so comforting to have someone shine a light on them, and there’s never been someone quite so qualified to tell us that the feeling is very much mutual.
The National’s Sleep Well Beast is out today (September 8th) via 4AD Recordings, the album is available to stream, download and purchase. The band set off on a UK and European tour later this month, with more details for the shows found here.
Words by Ben Kitto