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The National – Sleep Well Beast

The National are a band I think about and listen to a lot, particularly during this time of year – when things become colder and more enshrouded in darkness, not unlike a National album cover. But I only get to write about The National on this blog occasionally, mainly because they typically take a while between album releases. And I’ll admit I’m prone to whipping out the old grab bag of subjects to discuss while talking about The National – how their songs take a while to grow on you, Matt Berninger’s brooding and disarmingly funny lyrics, the band’s consistency in maintaining a sound that’s always the same but always different. And then there’s the attribute that keeps me from writing about The National any more frequently than every 3 years or so – their attention to detail.

A couple of articles that came out ahead of Sleep Well Beast alluded to the fact that not unlike National albums in the past, this one took a while to finish because it was marked by the clashing of (literal) twin guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner and Berninger. The Dessners being the meticulous composers who are the reason the band’s songs are so durable and so re-listenable, while the untrained musician Berninger is the reason the band always sounds so human. And I think a lot of the band’s success relies on striking this middle ground of having everything be in its right place, but also letting Berninger bleed his dapper middle-aged heart all over these songs.

Sleep Well Beast I would say strikes that balance pretty nicely. I feel like of this band’s recent (and uniformly great) run of albums, 2010’s High Violet seems like the album where the band perhaps fussed over the material too much, and since then you’ve seen little snippets of them retaining the scruffiness of their Alligator days. “Turtleneck” is probably the most blatant example of this, which sees The National letting loose and rocking about as hard as they’ve ever rocked (not that that’s saying much).

Similarly, singles “The Day I Die” and “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” are in a more pounding vein. Though they’re still surrounded by the eternal brood that haunts The National, though this time around you hear just enough of an electronic pulse beneath their ballads to feel like this isn’t just a repeat of a National album you’ve already heard before. In fact, the album’s closing title track practically reaches Radiohead-levels of electronic sputtering mixed with introverted sulking.

I suppose that brings me to another thing about this band that I rarely dwell on, mainly because The National’s songs seem so personal and insular – the fact that this is a fairly politically-minded band. After all, two of the band’s more ubiquitous songs, “Fake Empire” and “Mr. November”, were restless snapshots of the Bush administration, while The National also campaigned for Obama and Hillary during their presidential runs. So does this National album feel the effects of us being thrust into an age when everything feels politicized?

Well, yes and no. In that it’s another album that makes the political seem personal, as a lot of the songs seem to be about different kinds of personal crises (mainly marital) that may be informed by the current climate of things, or perhaps not. It’s hard to say. But what isn’t hard to say is that it probably is still too early to say where this album stands in the grand scheme of National albums. As is always the case, you need to spend some time with them, even though this album has admittedly been out for nearly a month at this point. But I suppose the ultimate test will be to see how appropriately this album accompanies us into winter, and hopefully provides some warmth in the midst of total darkness.

Favorite Tracks: “Day I Die”, “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness”, “I’ll Still Destroy You”

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