The National’s latest album is a nuanced and melancholy trip
Autumn has arrived early here in North Carolina. The leaves may still be green, but the temperature no longer exceeds 80°, Shipyard Pumpkinhead is back in stores (and my heart), and the streets are alive with the sound of flannel-donned 20-somethings playing monotone covers of Death Cab and Modest Mouse. The season is perfect for The National.
In 2001, The National released their self-titled debut album. They were a four-piece unit at the time, with Scott Devendorf and Aaron Dessner’s roles reversed. It’s hard to consider this their true debut given the lack of Bryce Dessner’s influence. Their second album released two years later was their first release with their current line-up, thus it’s easier to consider that where this band really begins. In the following 14 years, they have released five incredible records. There is only a handful of modern acts that have even had five good records in a row, let alone of the quality The National has maintained. It puts them in a very small group of elite acts.
Seven albums into their career and these guys haven’t slowed down once. Each album has its own distinct sound, be it the eccentric Alligator, classic Boxer, expansive High Violet, or the subdued Trouble Will Find Me. Sleep Well Beast, more than ever before, embodies melancholy. The relationship between vocalist Matt Berninger and his bandmates seems as close as ever. Their writing style is usually independent of one another, which shows in some of their other works, but rarely here.
They kick the album off with the somber “Nobody Else Will Be There.” The track is quiet and takes aim at taking measures to repair a relationship. It didn’t quite hit me upon my first few listens, but after a couple days, I find myself humming the melody. The National has always crafted somber and subdued tracks with that kind of brilliance. Songs like “Pink Rabbits” or “Slipped” off Trouble Will Find Me are piano ballads that absolutely rock at the same time. Credit that to the rhythm section of the band; Scott Devendorf’s complimentary bass and Bryan Devendorf’s phenomenal percussion.
The second track, and final pre-release single, “Day I Die,” is an instant classic for the band. Devendorf masterfully uses as a sense of consistency throughout the song, making subtle percussion changes throughout the song. It’s a testament to the Dessner’s nearly unmatched ability at crafting seamless transitions as well as Berninger’s elegant melodic touch. “Day I Die” features a simple but incredibly effective hook and is one of their best guitar focused tracks.
While “Day I Die” is an immediate favorite, akin to “Bloodbuzz Ohio” or “Apartment Story,” the best song on the album is one that I actually overlooked upon my first listen. Similar to “England” and “Demons,” the moment “I’ll Still Destroy You” clicked was visceral and intense. The melody is outstanding, lyrically it’s among Berninger’s most powerful and destructive, and the composition is impeccable. It is gorgeous and absolutely defeating at the same time. 90 seconds in, the drums kick off and Berninger’s voice grows louder. In his traditional baritone, he describes the effects of a medicine, “this one’s like the wilderness without the world.” Chills.
Sleep Well Beast focuses on piano and electronics more than their previous works. “Born To Beg,” starts off as a piano ballad that is eventually broken up by electronic noodling and effect-heavy guitar work shooting past your peripherals like specs of light. A change of tempo coupled with a lovely outro eventually redirects the song. Then there is “Guilty Party,” the second single off the album. Its blunt realism makes for a haunting ode to lost love. It’s a bitter farewell to a relationship that was unable to reconcile. Devendorf once again turns a somber and depressing track into a jam.
That’s not to say these guys don’t rock still. As if “Day I Die” wasn’t enough, “Turtleneck” rocks harder than anything they’ve done since “Mr. November.” The fun, infectious rhythm grabs hold and never lets go until this barn burner is done. Berninger’s vocals are off the chain here; he sounds like he’s having a blast, a rarity for his style of singing. The individuals that make up the band are very political, though their music is rarely a reflection of that. Through the chaos and obscurity of “Turtleneck,” there is a political theme rearing its head, particularly in the second verse. “Everything they switch to is just another man in shitty suits, everybody’s cheering for. This must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for. Oh no.” You don’t have to think too hard about this one.
A melodic throwback to Boxer, “Carin at the Liquor Store,” is almost a sucker-punch after the emotional stretch from “Empire Line” to “Guilty Party.” There’s just no break from the pure emotion of this record. “Dark Side of the Gym” is a similarly somber sounding track, yet there is a more hopeful spin to it. These two songs fit perfectly side-by-side and are even more incredible when looked at within the context of the entire record. They structured the album with care and the result is brilliant.
The album closes out with the title track, something the band has never done before. It’s a slow-burning number filled with fluttering electronics to compliment its dark tone. The guitars are very held back on the closer, occasionally peeking out from behind the much louder string arrangements. It’s a very lush track and incredibly rich in texture. Tonally, this is one of the best closers they have ever done. It doesn’t have the sing-a-long status of “Vaderlyle Crybaby Geeks” but it is right up there with “Gospel” in terms of wrapping up the entire album in a concise fashion.
The National is one of the greatest bands in the world. After five incredible albums in a row, spanning almost two decades, it’s time we acknowledge that. If you weren’t already convinced, let this be the final straw: in the pantheon of modern rock, The National have earned their seat at the table.