Album of the Week: The National, 'Sleep Well Beast'

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The National, 'Sleep Well Beast'
The National's 'Sleep Well Beast' was produced by Aaron Dessner with co-production by Bryce Dessner and Matt Berninger. (4AD Records)
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I'll still destroy you someday, sleep well, beast. You as well, beast.

- "Sleep Well Beast"

On their seventh album, The National have forged an artifact of the times, bringing in new experiences, friends (local angle: both Justin Vernon and Ryan Olson are credited in the liner notes), a dream studio, and personal/political discord. They created an amalgamation of moods, sounds, and impressions that they wouldn't have been able to make until now.

You could call this an optimistic album, but don't kid yourself, it's still The National. The slow burn growth of The National's fame has given the five-piece the platform to indulge in some passion projects (building their dream recording studio in the middle of nowhere, curating experimental music festivals, a Grateful Dead tribute album, a multitude of side project albums, singer Matt Berninger discovering legal weed). It seems like the five band members have found stability in their musical community, and in their personal lives.

But the years since 2013's Trouble Will Find Me haven't been all positive: Aaron Dessner's (the de facto band leader of Sleep Well Beast) mother-in-law passed away, and the band has not been shy about their feelings about the 2016 election, the tension of a nation divided or the anxiety that comes from a 24 hour news cycle. In an interview with The Line of Best fit, Berninger said, "Even if I didn't want to think about [Sleep Well Beast] as a political record, it obviously is. Everything's fucking political right now...I can't wall off the terrible things that are happening from my marriage, or from fatherhood."

Instead of walling themselves off, The National leans into their collective fear and anxiety. Berninger, who gives a writing credit to his wife, lyrically faces not just his political unease (on tracks like "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" and the raw "Turtleneck"), but his worry about passing on flawed DNA to his daughter ("I'll Still Destroy You") and the possible demise of his relationship ("Guilty Party"). Sonically the band echoes these words with haunting orchestrated bits recorded in Paris, glitchy improvised pieces from Funkhaus festival in Berlin, throbbing drum machines that battle Bryan Devendorf syncopated beats, and guitars is a swirling fight. The cacophony is at some times disorienting, but balances nicely with quieter delicate moments.

The National have taken the growth from time apart to make the album it seems they have always wanted to: live and raw, killer guitar solos, heavy drums, cerebral and cutting lyrics, sprinkled with electronic experimentation and beautiful orchestration. The Beast may be asleep, but The National sound like they're wide awake.

Resources


The National - Official Site

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