Dark millennial dreams: The National reappears with ‘Sleep Well Beast’
The new album from The National, entitled Sleep Well Beast, has a similar feel to all of the other music produced by the New York City based indie rock group─ when you listen it is as if you’re watching the token edgy goth girl from your small suburban high school eat lunch by herself. This, of course, is not a bad thing. The National has always produced some of the most sulky music on the alt scene, but also some of the best. The lyrics are rich in imagery and quippy one liners (like “I’m gonna keep you in love with me for awhile” from “Dark Side of the Gym”) and the sound is an ever-evolving layering of drum kits, multiple guitars, and video game noises circa 1980.
One might approach their newest work with some trepidation since it follows one of their most acclaimed projects. The National has made too many albums to be concerned about a sophomore slump of sorts. They released their first album in 2001, eons ago in the streaming age, and made six more. But it was their last album, Trouble Will Find Me, that was considered to be the best by many critics. Their recognition surged when Trouble was nominated for a Grammy in 2014.
Lyrically, the band’s newest album will appease much of the audience that loved their last project so much. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Matt Berninger’s vocals continue to lovingly intertwine with the despondent lyrics the band is famous for. “Put your heels against the wall/I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you/I’ll still destroy you” he sings on “I’ll Still Destroy You.” The band is notorious for not ever having a truly happy song that rarely addresses anyone other than an amorphous “you”─ but that shouldn’t be construed as a weaknesses. Berninger has a unique talent for using his smoky, low pitch to convey a majority of the emotion presented, but in Sleep Well Beast, the other band members pull their weight. Each track contains multiple layers of percussion and simple chord progressions, but the effect is never overwhelming. The National seems to be acutely aware that the hordes of college kids and boomerang graduates that listen to their music gobble up their lyrics, and they’d never want the instrumentals to compete with the instagram caption worthy content.
A few of the songs that seem to fall more on trend tend to be the weaker spots of the album. Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean popularized the “voicemail effect” in their albums, where snippets of phone calls or audio messages are clipped onto the beginning of a track. The National takes their own spin on this in “Walk It Back.” After Berninger goes through a bizarre half-rapped verse, another garbled voice spews random sentences over what sounds to be a computer motherboard screaming. The effect is supposed to be avant-garde, but it really just feels out of place compared to the rest of the album. “Guilty Party” has lyrics without the typical aloofness usually present in The National’s music: “I say your name/I say I’m sorry/I’m the one doing this/There’s no other way/It’s nobody’s fault/No guilty party.” The corniness is enough to make your teeth itch. Without the glitchy electronic noises in the beginning, it could easily be mistaken for a top 40 ballad with the looped piano chords.
As some feared, Sleep Well Beast didn’t quite reach the heights of Trouble Will Find Me. The same formula that makes their songs so listenable and emotional is still there, but some whiffs of cloying indie pop have leaked in. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t absolutely worth the listen. Consider it as the starting album for your next big road trip, especially if you’re feeling the pull of wistfulness. Luckily, The National didn’t stray far enough from their usual blueprint of polished drum hooks and forlorn lyrical longings to alienate their fans, but their production of fresh content is enough to draw in new listeners. It’s not too much of a stretch to speculate that it was purposeful of them to release it during what many colleges have set as their freshman week. Maybe Sleep Well Beast will coax the next group of 20 somethings into The National’s fanbase.
Notable songs from Sleep Well Beast: “Day I Die,” “Dark Side of the Gym,” and “I’ll Still Destroy You.”