The National Deliver The Album We Need With 'Sleep Well Beast'

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 8, 2017 6:52PM

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The National, photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

My history with The National goes way back—I once booked a show with them at the back of an old produce stand in Chicago as a favor to a friend—but I was never in the ranks of their fans. I respected the band, but even back then there was an air of mopey balding dude rock that just felt a little too on the nose to me. I was obviously in the minority, and the band’s mid-aughts rise to fame showed there was a healthy audience for mopey balding dude rock. Part of that had to do with their being championed by Pitchfork and Stereogum at the intersection of time when both had a huge resonance in the music scene, but in the end, it was The National’s talents that made them stars.

I think all this time I’ve been waiting for the band to make a statement that really proved they were as big as everyone was treating them to be, and Sleep Well Beast has finally delivered on that hope. It is a deep album, that crawls under your fingernails and then pushes through your bloodstream with an emotional power that feels elemental. Part of this has to do with Aaron Dessner’s masterful production, as he blends the band’s pulsing rhythms and intricate guitar work into a textured whole that throbs with an internal pulse and power. But more than that I think a clue can be found in the liner notes reading “lyrics and melodies by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser.”

Berninger is the face of The National, and his mumbling baritone is an unmistakable part of the band’s personal power. But it appears that bringing his wife Besser into the mix has opened new vistas of vulnerability and sheer truth to the group’s work. It’s hard to pinpoint the power of her influence, but Berninger has never sounded so appealingly vulnerable and honest as he does here.

And the timing of this release feels important too. In a world beset by grandiose uncertainty and paranoia, taking those themes to a microcosmic personal level just feels right. When Berninger intones “The day I die, the day I die / Where will we be?” the moment just feels so cosmically in tune and universal. The band becomes a conduit to reflect a moment, and that moment stretches to eternity in the way all great truths do. And when he says “I’m always thinking about useless things / I’m always checking out” you know exactly where he’s coming from, because you’ve been doing the exact same thing recently.

With Sleep Well Beast, The National has created their most intricately constructed, yet undeniably human album of their career. It’s reassuring to see great art can combine the threads that bring us together like this and make us feel like we’re not alone. It’s the whisper in your ear that says maybe everything won’t be all right, but at least we’re all in it together.