1000 REVIEWS /// Sleep Well Beast by The National
by Joseph Sardella
Sleep Well Beast is The National’s 7th studio album, not counting their 2004 release “Cherry Tree” (which is technically an EP). The band seems to be at a point in their career where “everything they touch turns to gold” in the colloquial sense, not in the sense of the myth of King Midas where that quality ends up being their demise. Every album they have released in the past decade has been well received, both critically and commercially. They continue to sharpen themselves and hone their craft to become a better version of the entity that is The National. On Sleep Well Beast, the band gets down deep in the trenches with their minimal arrangements and production. This is not to say the songs aren’t interesting or complex, it just means the band all play with great restraint and know how to control the chaos of the more intricate rhythms of the drum grooves or melodic interjections of the guitars. Every decision to stray from the base of the musical bed of each song is intentional and effectively serves its purpose.
A great example of their masterful restraint is the song “Nobody Else Will Be There”. The song starts with a simple, programmed drum machine beat that is layered under the piano line written by Aaron Dessner. Vocalist Matt Berninger delivers his trademark crooning bass vocal and speaks impressionistically; his lyrics are often so personal that you need to listen to the story unfold to understand the point he and his wife are making (they write the lyrics together, but she isn’t a vocalist so we never hear her voice alongside him). Eventually the song builds some tension, and Bryce Dessner delivers an eerie and pertinent slide that really cuts through in the song. There isn’t much that comes from the guitars on this tune, but when they speak, the phrases are full of value and capture your attention immediately. It’s that kind of restraint that is applied to the entirety of the album.
All the songs aren’t as slow or mellow as “Nobody Else Will Be There”. “Turtleneck” is arguably the most “rock n roll” the band has ever gotten, with the wailing guitars sticking religiously to the chord progression and Matt delivering an anxious vocal that crescendos to a tasteful yell by each chorus. On “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, Bryce Dessner delivers the first guitar solo the band has ever had in their catalogue. The song “Walk it Back” is another textbook example of the minimalism employed by the band on this album. “I’ll Still Destroy You” is a masterful show of production and arrangement choices by Aaron Dessner.
Throughout the album, themes of community, family, love, anxiety, politics, and what potential future we have in America are the focal points of the lyrical content. Berninger jumps between his own life experiences, his personal perspective, his hopes, and social commentary in a tastefully masterful display of lyricism. Perhaps this is because his perspective in songwriting isn’t limited to his own mind, but is sharpened by his wife Carin Besser. She is at once both a muse and a collaborator for her husband and this unique dynamic makes for some deeply compelling songwriting (especially when she inevitably assists in writing songs about herself), as on “Carin at the Liquor Store”.
Few bands of their caliber use their platform to help newer or lesser known artists. Fewer still make a point to champion women as equal collaborators in the music industry, which is clear on their social media and even on their latest record entitled I Am Easy to Find from May 2019. The National continues to occupy their spot at the top with formidable strength, disarming compassion, and incessant championing of their community.