The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’

Dark and hugely personal, 'Sleep Well Beast' is an album of depth both musically and lyrically - it's a record that requires dedication to fully appreciate but it's a time investment well worth making
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It takes a rare amount of vision to successfully guide a stranger through your own internal world. All too often, deeply personal snapshots and inner dialogues can bore those who have no real connection to them and in the discipline of music as much as any other, it takes a writer of real cohesion and power to make their highly personalised art as important to the listener as it is to them. Over the past 15+ years, The National have proved themselves adept at weaving intricate inner worlds. Insight into the psyche of frontman Matt Berninger has never been difficult to attain – simply look at his lyrics for that. Even with that said ‘Sleep Well Beast’ is a strikingly personal, searingly honest record and one that, by virtue of its nature, walks a risky path and, in the hands of a lesser band, might risk feeling self indulgent.

‘Sleep Well Beast’s 12 songs and 57 minutes are generally so personal to those that created that album that it’s testimony to Berninger’s engaging lyricism and the band’s deft, nuanced musicality that the album manages to be so powerfully vivid, even to those with little prior knowledge of the band. Rather than the album’s lyrical intimacy alienating those not already invested in the group’s singular outlook, it welds the record together and lends it a sense of cohesion and focus throughout its not insignificant runtime. Instrumentation, too, is consistent and effective, again seeking primarily to create an atmosphere – a goal in which the band succeeds with flying colours.

As atmospheric as it is, ‘Sleep Well Beast’ is at times slightly hampered by a repetitive instrumental palette and tempo; there are a few rockier moments in amongst the generally dour electronics (lead single ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’, ‘Day I Die’ and the punchy ‘Turtleneck’); but they’re all situated on the first half of the record, leaving the last half an hour of the album to by and large play out as a somewhat uniform collection of slow to mid tempo contemplations.

Minor pacing issues aside, however, ‘Sleep Well Beast’ is a powerful album and the somewhat samey instrumentation doesn’t detract from that. There’s real power to the songwriting here – Berninger’s lowkey vocal delivery perfectly fits the downtrodden imagery of ‘Born To Beg’, the percussive electronics and melancholic guitars proving a subtle, well balanced backing that never distracts from the lyrics – the primary focus of the album – but at the same time excel enough that even taken out of context, they work as standalone pieces of music.

When the band do pick the pace up, it’s to great effect – the staggering punch of ‘Tutleneck’ sees Berninger do his best Nick Cave in a barrage of taut drums and hit ‘n’ run bass that breaks up the mood effectively and also offers a change of pace in lyrical perspective, not just musical. Throughout the album there’re small touches and sonic flourishes that subtly elevate the songs from good to great and sometimes even great to fantastic – ‘Guilty Party’s throbbing string line initially seems an incongruous mix with the song’s glitchy rhythms but it’s a touch that lifts an already beautifully constructed song to another level. It’s in moments like this, when The National show off their ripe musical imagination, that they’re at their best.

The ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ referencing rhythms and surging chorus of ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ are compelling on their own, but it’s when the song’s deliriously off-kilter guitar riff comes in that the song’s real hook lands. Like the best moments on the album, it’s a seemingly small touch but one which most bands simply wouldn’t have thought of and these parts that ultimately make ‘Sleep Well Beast’ a great album.

‘Sleep Well Beast’ is a nuanced, intricate record and one that really flourishes numerous listens in. The National have long been a band to focus on the details but that’s the case here more than ever. ‘Sleep Well Beast’ is a rewarding, deep record that, although perhaps overly consistent at times, still yields great dividends to those who put in the time to really understand the album’s rich details.

  1. Nobody Else Will Be There
  2. Day I Die
  3. Walk It Back
  4. The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
  5. Born to Beg
  6. Turtleneck
  7. Empire Line
  8. I’ll Still Destroy You
  9. Guilty Party
  10. Carin at the Liquor Store
  11. Dark Side of the Gym
  12. Sleep Well Beast