Until Sleep Well Beast, The National didn’t know what they sounded like. They are an experienced band, with a career spanning almost twenty years and seven studio albums; but, explains guitarist Aaron Dessner, truly understanding their own sound is only a phenomenon of the past four years. Written and recorded in a new studio, a converted barn Dessner built at his home in Hudson Valley, New York, this spot has become the enduring image of Sleep Well Beast, providing a place for it’s conception as well as a decent photo for the album cover.
These new surroundings do a lot to explain the discernible shift in sound we hear from the get-go of the National’s latest release. Where their previous effort, Trouble Will Find Me compiled a track list of dense anthems dripping in reverb, Sleep Well Beast veers off in a more ambient, electronic direction. Detailed and contemplative, strange digital fragments rattle all the way through spacious instrumentation while Matt Berninger’s crooning vocals negotiate a mixture of both catchy and disjunct melodies.
Lyrically, his narrative is beautifully tormented. Wry and resolutely somber, Berninger addresses a relationship that is jaded with familiarity; the opening track ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ sounds like a late night, gin-fuelled confessional that acknowledges how fragile these kind of relationships can be. Moving further into the album, ‘Walk it Back’ deals with those personal difficulties in conjunction with a malign and unforgiving world, as a computerised synth persists and clashes with pure, swirling guitar work that is ultimately cut off by a kind of digital scream. The track also samples an excerpt of a recording of Karl Rove, a former aide to George W Bush, creating an eerily political vocal layer amid Berninger’s reflection – “nothing I change changes anything”.
To some degree, the National keep it unpredictable. There are points on the record that break with its delicate and gloomy aura; most clearly, ‘Turtleneck’ jumps out as a self-contained, free-falling jam that sounds dated and punk-inspired. Ripping, overdriven guitars sit below an audibly affected Berninger, who growls and shouts disjointed sentences – “Oh no, this is so embarrassing / Oh no, the pissing fits” – in a swift inferno of angst. It is difficult to picture the National, four grown men with children and mortgages and monochromatic wardrobes, as the headline act at a school concert in the 1970s, but this track just about delivers the image.
Nonetheless, what ‘Turtleneck’ lacks in melodic interest is compensated for by the B-side of the record. ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ reinstates the electronic feel to the end of the album, fusing strange samples into a graceful melody driven by Berninger’s vocals until it settles down into a chorus. As it moves into ‘Guilty Party’, a slow burning ballad accompanied initially by a drum machine, the National begin a gradual retreat. It would not be unreasonable to assume that ‘Dark Side of the Gym’, easily the most romantic song on the track list, precedes a tranquil conclusion with it’s soft and ambient guitar work towards the end, yet the titular final track ‘Sleep Well Beast’ leaves as much unanswered as the opener. Jagged and hazy, the National’s closing bars evoke disarray and a lack of resolution. Suppose they’ll have to make another record, then.
IMAGE: miss.libertine, Flickr