A lot of people find home in the National’s albums, home being a resting place for those disquieting, at times violent feelings that everything could fall apart at any second. It’s a bit confounding (and comforting) that the National—one of the few rock bands that honestly sit with those uncomfortable and instinctively unwelcome feelings in their music—now fills stadiums with a sound so reminiscent of isolation and unglamorous rumination. Thousands gather in arenas to watch a (perhaps inebriated) lead singer in glasses and a button-up shirt fidget and rattle off his anxieties. Unlike many rock bands who fill those same stadiums with celebratory sounds of youthful optimism, the National have dispelled all their hubris, opting instead for an honest meditation on adulthood and ennui, which has cumulated with an experimental edge in Sleep Well Beast.
With Sleep Well Beast the Dessner brothers create synthesized sonic oddities that creep in at the peripheries of the Devendorfs’ solid but eerie percussion and bass. Vocalist Matt Berninger then fills this atmosphere with confessional vignettes and foggy narratives. Berninger has always struck me as the everyman’s lyricist. His songs capture a midlife protagonist unsure of what to do with his government (see “Fake Empire” or “Mr. November”), his relationships (“Conversation 16” is my favorite), his children (“Afraid of Anyone”), his liquor (see any track on Alligator), even his hands at a party (“Slow Show”). Sleep Well Beast expounds on these anxieties, building a sonic and lyrical atmosphere upon unsteady grounds and shifting tides.
The members of the National have scattered across the country since the release of Trouble Will Find Me, with Matt Berninger leaving New York, his home of 18 years, for Los Angeles in 2015. The setting alone—New York City on a crisp “subway day”—exudes an aching nostalgia on the opening track “Nobody Else Will Be There,” but lyrically this is just about a fumbling couple trying to leave a crowded party. “Holding our coats / We look like children / Goodbyes always take us half an hour / Can’t we just go home?” One of the National’s strengths is their ability to drop the listener into their awkward narratives—here standing half-in and half-out of a doorway, tugging on the jacket of their partner—forcing the listener to get to the root of what makes this situation is so excruciating.
The fidgety agitation and longing of “Nobody Else Will Be There” pummels into “Day I Die” with the decisive but potentially regrettable proclamation “I don’t need you, I don’t need you.” Glitzy percussion creates an atmosphere just delirious and drunken enough to get away with the chorus “The day I die, the day I die / Where will we be?” These lyrics are the closest to cringe-worthy on the album, but their unrestrained abandon feels warranted for a reflection on a marriage falling apart. As they have in the past, Berninger and his wife Carin Besser, with whom he is happily, healthily married, collaborated on these lyrics. This song-writing method of macerating in relationship anxiety yields two things for listeners: first, the reassurance that examining anxieties rather than repressing them is a sign of health and trust, and, second, a wealth of nuanced lyrics that cut to your core.
The National have always produced a clean sound, and if I had any reservations about this album it was due to the overproduced singles. When released earlier this year, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” felt like an overproduced, potentially flimsy attempt at conspiratorial profundity. Ethereal vocal harmonizations, zingy guitar riffs, a grating piano and repetitious drum patterns amount to something a bit overwhelming. The band precariously juggles all of these elements, putting the listener on edge because it feels so close to falling apart. This felt haphazard as a single, however within the greater context of the album these choppy, precarious elements serve as a powerful interlude, a forceful exclamation point to our unease.
Throughout Sleep Well Beast, Berninger seamlessly conflates intimacy with national anxiety. It’s unclear what exactly the “system” is, or what beast Berninger is lulling to sleep, yet the metaphors somehow make sense. “Walk It Back” suggests a relationship mid-collapse and a narrator paralyzed into inaction: “I only take up a little of the collapsing space / I better cut this off / Don’t wanna fuck it up.” This fades out with a female voicing reciting the infamous Karl Rove quote, “People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community. . . That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” The vocals return with Berninger begging “don’t go dark on me.” Read as either personal or political, Sleep Well Beast succeeds in scraping the surface of mundane occurrences and placeless anxiety to suggest the presence of something sinister and tragic underneath.
“Turtleneck,” the National’s uncharacteristic play on classic punk, rings political as well. “The poor, they leave their cell phones in the bathroom of the rich / . . . / This must be the genius we’ve been waiting for” is about Trump tweeting from his toilet. This physically intense track transitions abruptly into “Empire Line,” a wintry song that signals the sweetness and nuanced heartache on the second half of the album. “I’ll Still Destroy You” is one of the most powerful moments on the album, with our exacerbated vocalist grappling with the inner emotional vampire we met on “Demons” and “Conversation 16.” These listless ramblings, “I have no positions / No point of view or vision / I’m just trying to stay in touch with anything I’m still in touch with,” crescendo with a string orchestra and resolute percussion. The album ends with “Sleep Well Beast,” a disconcerting lullaby seemingly sung internally, or from one beast to another: “I’ll still destroy you someday, sleep well beast, you as well, beast.” All of the disjointed sounds on this album—aching piano refrains, flutes, whimsical electronic noises sputtering in and out, a dramatic string orchestra—cumulate into a strange and sedative dreamscape.
The steadfast band that never fails to disappoint requires more trust from their listeners with this experimental, at times precarious album. But ultimately the instrumentation, lilting vocals and familiar honest lyrics weather the peculiar sonic atmosphere and leave the listener standing on solid ground. This cautious exercise in experimentation is the National’s promising way forward, and as always a home for their listeners looking for rest.