At long last, the wait is over. Ever since 2013, not long after the release of Trouble Will Find Me, I’ve been longing for a new album from The National.
Okay, that’s not quite true. While, I didn’t really know about The National until 2012 (thank you, Game of Thrones!), I didn’t even listen to Trouble Will Find Me until my Cascadia adventure in 2013, and even then, I only listened to it once. In retrospect, I don’t get it. Today, The National is one of my absolute favorite bands, and they really really took their time weaving their way into my life. It took me another four months after that to listen to Boxer, and still six more before I even sniffed their remaining albums. Once they took root, though, they’ve held on tightly. The National was my most listened to band of 2014. They’ve slipped (pun not intended) a bit as time went on, though I did finally end up seeing the band live for the first time last year. They were awesome — everything else around the concert sucked, but that’s neither here nor there. They played six new songs, five of which are on the new release, Sleep Well Beast. It would be yet another year and change before these songs finally came out of the studio, and I must say, Sleep Well Beast was worth the wait. For a seventh studio album, it’s unbelievably good. There are few bands who generate outstanding music so consistently and The National is up in rarefied air. Without further ado, my impressions of this gorgeous new record:
- Nobody Else Will Be There: A solemn opening track, this one sets the table for the album to come. Already the sonic space is filled with new textures and shapes, electronic clicks and hums. It’s suddenly broken by a heavy piano and the characteristic, heartfelt vocals of Matt Berninger. Yep, it’s The National. This song is reserved, melancholic, and slow — it reminds me of a winter night. It takes major turns in the chorus and bridge, adding a bit of light to an otherwise grim, lonely sound. If this is a sign of what’s to come, Sleep Well Beast is going to be an emotional ride.
- Day I Die: Wham! Quiet synth gives way to a raucous drum and twitchy, crashing guitar. Here’s the explosive energy that occasionally dotted the band’s last few spectacular albums. The instrumentation isn’t exceptionally complex, but the drumming is absurdly good. It’s easily the lead sound of the song as well as its main driving force. Oh hey, a reference to “Val Jester!” Neat. I’m also loving the use of piano throughout this album from what I’ve heard (singles & live tracks), which is always welcome. As a whole, I think “Day I Die” is pretty good, if a bit repetitive. I’m sure it will grow on me more.
- Walk It Back: Of the new songs I’d heard live a year ago, this was the one that struck me the most immediately. Lead by a choppy synth, piano chords, and a floaty guitar, I think it’s mainly the chord progression and lyrics that grabbed me. Matt’s vocals are almost atonal in the beginning of the verses, staying in his trademark low baritone throughout. It’s spacey and subdued, much like the opening track. “Walk It Back” doesn’t particularly build up very much, bringing in only slightly more intricate drums and guitar during the bridge. There is a spoken monologue during this point, which is a curious choice; I’d almost rather listen to the backing instrumentation alone here, which is a low keyboard intertwined with guitar and steady bass. The long outro feels almost like a new song, but it maintains the restraint of the first half. It doesn’t sound like I remember, but that’s probably just my fault. The National to me has always been about growing into their songs — why should this album be different?
- The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness: The first single released to the world from Beast, “System” revealed a few new things about The National’s latest sound: the first thing we hear is a heavily processed set of female vocals, then another sharply crashing guitar, along with piano. The bass is crispy. Synths are ubiquitous. It reminds me a little of EL VY for some reason. When Matt’s vocals start to soar, the song really takes off in pursuit. A crunchy guitar solo enters; a sound we hadn’t really heard before on National records, yet it doesn’t really seem out of place either. So far the energy has been off and on for this record, and I have a feeling that’s going to continue.
- Born to Beg: And we’re back to the downbeat, featuring another piano with blocky chords, soft vocals, and percussive bloops for structure. The progression reminds me a little of “England,” while the vocal harmonies of the chorus add a broad, ethereal feel. It’s kind of amazing how consistent this band is; this song, additional electronics aside, could fit at home on either High Violet or Trouble Will Find Me quite well. It’s chill, and again somewhat mournful. Not the most memorable song, but I like it.
- Turtleneck: Immediately this song is a blast, with multi-layered guitars, upfront bass, and a chaotic drumbeat. The low low vocals combined with machine-gun strumming are a treat. There’s been an unleashing here; the guitars are out of control, the vocals are rough and agitated, and the production is unpolished, presumably intentionally. It’s got a live feel, as well as a retro studio feel. Another guitar solo comes in, this one reminiscent of psychedelic-era Beatles, and before you know it, it’s over. I can’t tell if this song is amazing or completely out of place, or both. It doesn’t match the aural aesthetic of the album at all; it’s almost like an angry sequel to “Mr. November” — from The National, it doesn’t get much heavier than this.
- Empire Line: This was my least favorite song among those played at the concert last year. I was wrong. Very wrong. Amidst deep echoing percussion arises a High Violet-sounding reverberating guitar. A slow plodder, the vocals are the focal point here. The chorus breaks the low-key noise of the verse with a distant piano. Live the piano is much more upfront and distracting; here it’s deployed much better. Physical drums slowly grow to push the song ahead, while the sonic landscape widens with guitars, strings, and various effects. Toward the end, it feels almost as if the instruments are being swallowed as deep bass growls, yet the vocals remain clear. The production on this track is phenomenal. It sounds great in the studio.
- I’ll Still Destroy You: Sampled vocal synths and a lively set of clicks and hits kick us off here. Hang on, we’ve got a marimba! And an accordion-like pad. Oh, I like the progression on this one. The piano is in the background but adds a ton of momentum. As the chorus hits, the instruments diversify to an amazing degree. I’m not even sure what’s all here. A mandolin? The marimba returns. The drums are tight and swift. Suddenly, it’s wide open again, with only pads, subtle electronics, and whatever that mandolin-sounding instrument is, fluttering above. The texture here is wonderful. It almost feels like a closing track with its crescendo, brightness, and optimism. Of course, the lyrics say otherwise, but this is The National, after all. It closes with a maelstrom of swirling strings, insane drums, and uniform bass. Wow. Definitely a standout on an already solid album.
- Guilty Party: Beginning with another assortment of electronic percussion and a glitchy effect track, this one quickly breaks into another mournful piano progression, one very similar to “Day I Die,” in fact. There’s a soft, reverb-heavy vocal. A guitar quietly wails in the background. The bass rides high and clean. Bryan comes in with a quick, stuttering acoustic, providing an energetic contrast to the slow, deliberate piano. A couple of arpeggiating, poly-rhythmic guitars come in during the bridge, again very reminiscent of Radiohead amidst an otherwise very National-sounding scape. The verse and chorus repeat several times, each subtly building upon the predecessors as they’re joined by various other instruments including a staccato brass, strings, and additional electronic effects. It’s a long, repetitive song, yet somehow it doesn’t feel tiresome or boring. In fact, it might just be my favorite off the album, but it’s among tough competition, especially the next track…
- Carin at the Liquor Store: A slow, piano based track, filled with heavy, syncopated chords in a simple 3/4 rhythm, it’s somewhat reminiscent of “Pink Rabbits,” if optimistic. Of the singles, this was the first one that grabbed me immediately, so much so that upon first listen I sat myself at the piano and learned it one chord at a time by ear. The chorus adds some weighty bass and a simple, effective drum, while a distorted guitar fills up space during a brief, straightforward solo. Like several others on the album, it’s slightly repetitive, however it ends way sooner than it feels like it should. Beautifully simple, I adore this song and I want more of it.
- Dark Side of the Gym: Driven by an electric piano and a 6/8 shuffling beat, this one has the unmistakable feel of a high-school slow dance from a time before I was born. It’s also somewhat reminiscent of old-school National — I’m talking Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers style. It’s upbeat with a tinge of sadness, a ton of warmth, and a rather fitting upward key change halfway through. The chorus here uses a i-III-VII-IV chord progression, which, although common, is still one of my favorites. Overall, this song isn’t my favorite, but there is definitely something magical about it.
- Sleep Well Beast: Sped-up synths from “I’ll Still Destroy You” plus the electronic drums from “Guilty Party” kick us off on the closing track. The piano staggers not unlike “Hard to Find,” the previous album’s closer. Atmospheric guitars screech quietly. Matt mumbles, as if he just sang the whole album just now. There are Reznor-like electronic flourishes and Radiohead-like heavy bloops. Structure is somewhat lacking, made clearer only by Bryan’s tom-heavy percussion. It’s almost a noise-collage, with the vocals falling ever deeper into the background, making reference to previous songs as the music had already done. Does that make this a concept album? It’s a pretty bookend, making a neat thematic circle with “Nobody Else Will Be There.” It’s so dense, though, I’m going to need to listen to this many many many more times in order to really get a feel for it.
And that’s kind of the story of the album. Like every other release by The National, I listened to it once or twice, noted the standout songs, forgot the rest, and slept on it for too long (presumably). Sleep Well Beast is absolutely beautiful, incredibly well produced, and moving. It follows nicely in the footsteps of Boxer, High Violet, and Trouble Will Find Me, finishing a remarkable decade of high quality music that makes its artistic departures slowly and deliberately. Because of the aforementioned nature of The National, I don’t feel at all ready to rate this album among its predecessors; I like it better than High Violet at first listen, but that doesn’t mean much because High Violet is easily my least-listened to album among those three. That one is still growing on me too. Overall, the melancholic theme is consistent, the alternating between chill and energy is enough to keep attention, and the music, instrumentation, and melodies are gripping, though not immediately memorable. That is to say, they’re in there, they just need to grow. I’m sure they will; I’ll likely have this album on repeat for the rest of the year, especially in the winter. Going to see The National again next month will certainly force me to take a few long listens of their music. I can’t wait.