Music Reviews
Sleep Well Beast

The National Sleep Well Beast

(4AD) Rating - 8/10

Sleep Well Beast begins with a troubling affirmation. “You said we’re not so tied together / What did you mean?, lead singer/songwriter Matt Berninger whispers with a raspy coo that equally unnerves and soothes. It’s an inquisitive opening statement that should sound familiar to anyone who’s kept up with The National’s perpetual unease, where the answers are implicit rather than explicit. The title of the track leads us into a scenario that’s ambiguous but plausible, Nobody Else Will Be There, surrounded by a cold and frigid ambiance that amplifies the tension.

Nervous apprehension has been the constant that’s kept The National vital over the course of seven albums. But their sound has adapted to a dim-lit landscape ever since they scrapped the forlorn twang of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, as if the Ohio-born Berninger went for a long and ponderous drive to the concrete jungle in need of a fresh start. He’s made a life for himself in New York City, where he now lives with his daughter and wife/songwriting partner Carin Desser. It appears to contradict one of his most memorable lines, "I’ll never marry / But Ohio don’t remember me," evidence of how the psyche responds to his conflicting attitudes.

In truth, Berninger likes to twist narratives for poetic effect. So things are not quite as they seem on Sleep Well Beast, where he questions the relationships that tie us all together. His marriage with Desser is the major plot point that drives the story forward, but so does the family he’s built with his own bandmates for close to twenty years. It’s a working relationship that also features two sibling pairs, with not a single breakup to their credit, and through the years they’ve fostered that relationship while taking gradual but crucial risks. The swelling Day I Die is an undeniably symbolic gesture that follows U2’s stadium-reaching influence in both practice and passion, the result of a band whose staggered rise could’ve only be attained by following a rigid discipline that can come across as boring, yet healthy.

That degree of stability is welcome for a band whose members are already past forty, but that doesn’t mean that Berninger is excusing himself by lessening their potential resonance with empty gestures. Sleep Well Beast rebuilds on a musical template that began to feel a little bit too familiar on Trouble Will Find Me, given that Berninger’s illustrative musings became their most, and at times only, unique selling point. That high level of showmanship remained intact, always looking dapper and dressed in black, except that they were fast becoming a satire of themselves. Berninger even points the finger at himself with self-mockery on the stunning Walk It Back: “Forget it / Nothing I change changes anything / I won’t let it / I won’t let it ruin my hair," he quips with a low, quivering monotone that is beginning to resemble Leonard Cohen as he ages. The doom and gloom in his words continue to draw you in like a pitch-black vortex, as the rest of the band throws out a smattering of throbbing electronic touches like finger paint.

That sounds like a desperate, even perfunctory attempt to change, except that The National would only restructure their own identity if done with prim and prudent elegance. I’ll Destroy You brings forth a twitchy drum sequence atop perky marimba hits that seem to give insight into Berninger’s dual relationship with prescription drugs, effectively turning his attention to pleasant thoughts about his daughter as if writing from an isolated space to not wake up his family. It closely echoes the polarity in sound and words found in Boxer, especially Apartment Story, where he keeps an optimistic view of life despite that nagging urge to focus on the negative. But his feeling of culpability turns even more serious on the piano-led Guilty Party, where he asks for some understanding as he has a sensible and level-headed conversation with his wife: "You’re sleeping day and night / How do you do it? / Me / I am awake / feeling defeated."

Even if Sleep Well Beast is tinged with a deep sense of melancholy, partially due to Berninger’s tendency to read endlessly into things, The National never render too obscure for the sake of appearing more detached. They sound as involved as they’ve ever been, the fruits of considering a more improvisational and segmented approach to writing music. The System Only Dreams of Darkness, for instance, was conceived shortly after the Dessner brothers thought through different piano and guitar parts until they came up with the serrated guitar line that gives a more pointed weight to the song’s backbone. The patchy sound collage of the title track was also born out of a jam session where they were all experimenting together while they smoked some weed, though Berninger still manages to make sense of its elliptical instrumental touches with a less reconciliatory tone: "Go back to sleep / Let me drive / Let me think / Let me figure it out / How to get us back to the place we were when we first went out."

Berninger places great emphasis on patience as a tool of self-nourishment. As a result, Sleep Well Beast provides a den for him to decompress with a vivid, personal document where he’s able to weather the storm. He goes through many complications, presumably marital, but as the romantic ballad of Dark Side of the Gym attests, he’ll overcome the obstacle: “But I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while / I’m gonna keep you in love with me.” It truthfully captures how his sensitive side will inevitably collide with his frustrations, a balancing act of grace that is sometimes easier said than done.

The changes are slight in Sleep Well Beast, but they still render quite significantly in view of how they have a pressure to upend any expectations. Berninger steps into the darkness of the unknown and comes out wiser because of it, more at ease. He can finally rest, calming the beast that lives inside his mind. [Believe the Hype]