Turns out this band can actually get sadder. Yikes4AD, 2017
8.2 / 10
The National was one of the last bands in recent memory to establish a SOUND, an unmistakable sonic identity. Their loping, elegant rock encompassed both the sincerity and tragedy at the heart of their music, as well as the ethos of the band: sad mundanity, turned outwards by the band’s slow-building anthems. It set the group apart, into their own indie sub-genre, along with contemporaries like Arcade Fire and Spoon, but it also meant that they established a sonic trademark, one that could easily get boring.
With their past few records, the group saw slowly diminishing returns from the ever-grander and more theatrical sound that they were pushing. It reached a melodramatic peak with 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. Ballads like “Pink Rabbits”, which, while beautifully melancholy, sounded just like (roll your eyes here) “The National”. So when they announced a new album earlier this year, I was not particularly excited. I could already project the sound of the album in my head. But lo, they’ve still got some hidden depths in those deep, dark, blazer pockets.
There are a number of buzz-worthy aspects to this record. First, singer Matt Berninger worked on the lyrics with his wife, Carin, about their marital struggles. Apparently, this process helped to ease those same struggles. While this could come off like an hour-long humble-brag from Berninger, it adds an entirely new element of pathos to songs like “Born to Beg”, and “Day I Die”.
The other new addition to the record is the use of subtle electronics, on tracks like “Walk It Back”. The electronics fold into the group’s established sound beautifully. They work like ballsier Postal Service tunes. They’ve also tossed in the old National rave-up trick with “Turtleneck”. However, the song feels underwritten and underwhelming. It lacks the catharsis of a song like “Abel”.
For the most part, though, these new tunes pack a hell of a punch. “I’ll Still Destroy You” grows organically. Each new melodic line and chord change sends shivers down the spine. “Dark Side of the Gym” boasts a wonderfully catchy chorus. Here, Berninger sings, “I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while.” Then, when looking at the band, Bryan Devendorf kills each drum part. Plus, the Dessner brothers reach farther into the stratosphere for their atypically melodic arrangements.
Sleep Well Beast is more immediate, yet with more layers than the band’s previous few works. It feels like an exorcism of sorts for the band, especially Berninger. Perhaps they have ended one phase of their career, and are about to go boldly into the world of post-adulthood-sad-sack rock.