The Cincinnati indie rockers don’t get any more melancholic than this as they reminisce on beauty long passed. The National has enjoyed a steady following throughout their career, reaching an indelible peak with their album “Boxer and High Violet”. After releasing their album “Trouble Will Find Me” in 2013, The National return fours years later with “Sleep Well Beast”. This review will give a song by song examination of select tracks from the album, and concludes with an overall assessment of the band’s latest music.
In “Nobody Else Will Be There”, Matt refers to a relationship that has slowly begun to fade in the heart of a man ripping apart because of his own fears and insecurities. With the electric buzzing and piano guiding Matt’s voice comes through crooning with pain, and we can feel an emotional departure from the world around him. Such subtle notes of inquisitive light allow us to reflect on a woman who wasn’t there in his time of need. He sings, “Goodbyes always take us half an hour/Can’t we just go home?”. A beautiful introduction, it compels the listener to continue on the journey with Matt.
In the personal ballad “In Day I Die”, having reflected on the events of the previous song, Matt discusses his failed relationship. With a more upbeat tempo, the drums power through the thumping rhythm. We are in tune with the music and carried away from the problems of the present as Matt sings “Cause I really don’t have the courage not to turn the volume up inside my ears”. Presenting the case of a drug problem Matt uses his anecdotes as a method of driving away the pain through melancholic lyrics. Matt is pushing away his heartbreak, and for a listener, the magic that the National can produce really starts to kick into gear.
“Walk It Back” Introduces a backing synthesizer that is included throughout the entirety of the song, Matt’s vocals turn into a depressing growl. He embarks on a journey of self-reflection with the determination of ending the negativity surrounding his life. In the middle of the song, the band incorporates a sample from a Karl Rove interview in which we as the listeners are forced to reflect upon the realities that are written by those in control. Matt is taking ownership of his own reality, for better or worse. The plucking of the orchestral strings, and the strumming of the delayed guitars, simply add to Matt’s bittersweet decision to return to his lover and respark the romance that once was.
“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, in contrast to the previous songs, provides artistically ambiguous and provides political overtones that hang gloomily throughout the song. With a propulsive recurring riff driving the song, we are presented with the reality of a world gone somewhat wrong. After the November 2016 elections, the name of the song “The system only dreams in total darkness” has a completely different context that is played throughout the song. The song features Matt singing in an upper register, releasing his frustrations. “We’re in a different kind of thing now/All night you’re talking to God”.
“Turtleneck” is Easily the most danceable, rock-and-roll styled song of the album. It is almost reminiscent of the Queen of the Stone Ages recent work. The lyrics are an utmost release of jumbled ideas that almost appear to be a mess if it weren’t for the compelling riffs of the guitars in the background. Nonetheless, the political connotations in the song are omnipresent, referring to a man in power who promised much, but has delivered more fear than anything else. “This must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for, oh no/This is so embarrassing”.
“Empire Lin” is backed by drum machines and synths, more electronic instrumentals than actual guitars. However, the beauty of the song is how all these instruments are used as musical tools to demonstrate the distance between the protagonist and his lover as they grow more distant in their relationship. We can envision Matt on the subway heading further away, even though they’re so close together. “I’ve been talking about you to myself/Cause there’s nobody else.
In “Guilty Party”, we can imagine Matt reaching a point of no-return with the fictional end to his marriage. Matt takes the blame for himself, even though he knows that the emotions (in this reality) is mutual. Nonetheless, it feels confessional, like a profession of feelings that couldn’t be conjured up any other way. Certainly one of the quietest songs on the album, the chorus is repeated several times, providing an emphasis on the torture Matt is feeling as he ends the song with the lines “It all, all just catches up to me”.
“Carin at the Liquor Store” is most is definitely a ballad of epic proportions, we see Aaron, the piano player, go all out on the piano, with very minimalistic electronics and drums helping press the music forward. Matt hums with an enormous amount of melancholy, as he states that the end to the relationship was something that had to happen. Nonetheless, the effects that they have on Matt are undeniable, he thinks of his wife Carin.
“Sleep Well Beast”, a phrase from the beginning of the album is repeated at the beginning of this track. “We’ve been stuck out here in the hallway for way way too long”. Matt is trying to reconquer the love that was present at the beginning of the album that somehow seemed to slip away and vanish. We see Matt talking about his life as a father as he continues to feel lost as a son who has screwed up his life. His low voice compels the listener as we hear him struggle with the reality of what was occurring to him. His significant other is simply fading away into the nothingness that these songs convey for Matt, and so he learns to confront himself and his inner-demons. “I’ll still destroy you someday, sleep well, beast. You as well, beast”.
The National’s lyrics, although sometimes difficult to dissect at times due to their ambiguous nature, are a reflection of the dark times that have been enveloped in shocking tragedies and impossible developments. Matt Berninger channels these frustrations and angst into his own personal problems relating to drug use and the difficulties of his failing marriage. With many references to his wife, his daughter, and other family members, all three members of the band focus their energies into something spontaneous, yet terrifyingly beautiful. The first half of the album seems to alternate between slow and fast tempo songs that help keep the listener’s attention. However, the second half of the album completely engrossed itself in a melodramatic mood, almost to the detriment of the album at some points. Songs such as “Empire Line” and “Carin at the Liquor Store” are beautiful in their own right, but drag along as the pace of the album slows down. Even so, the production values of the album merit that they be heard through an excellent set of speakers. Matt’s crooning throughout the album is tremendously deep and vulnerable, while the production by Bryce and Aaron Dessner are something to behold. Marrying electronics to a more traditional rock outfit, akin to what Radiohead did with their acclaimed album Kid A, The National achieves some stunningly elegant sonics that thicken the melancholic mood of the album. With an assortment of political overtones that reference the atmosphere present in America following the November 2016 election, the lyrics go beyond the superficial qualities of a relationship gone wrong. Rather, this is an introspective reflection of oneself in a world where nothing seems to go according to plan. Only a band as intellectual as the National could pull off such an elegant piece of music.