REVIEW: The National – “Sleep Well Beast”

For the better part of the last two decades, The National has been providing me and others like me with the soundtrack for our adulting.

Now, I’m not talking, necessarily, about the world-weariness of the 9-to-5 or the trials, the ups and downs, of raising a family, though impressions of both sometimes sneak into the frame. What I’m talking about is the sort of dull-edged melancholy that comes with the awareness that time passes, love fades, and the things you once cherished will live strongest not in the present, but in memories of your youth. Yep; heady stuff.

On Sept. 8, the New York by-way-of Ohio quintet added another chapter to the liturgy with a new record — Sleep Well Beast, out on all formats on 4AD. The record, in many ways, is classic National, texturally ripe both lyrically and musically. But there are flourishes that are new; in addition to electronic pulses setting the tone more than a little here and there, the record leans on piano leads where previous ones have been dominated by guitar from the brothers Dessner. It leaves the material feeling a little heavier and weightier than usual, a feeling exacerbated by frontman Matt Berninger’s oft-somber delivery.

But is it any good? Well, sure. If any other band had cut this thing, they’d be hailed as indie heroes-in-the-making and rightly so. But expectations are high for The National and – while High Violet remains its undisputed high-water mark – its members largely deliver, presenting listeners with tracks that leave some indelible impressions, even if they are not the best of their career.

The album-opening “Nobody Else Will Be There” is enthralling, with little but Berninger’s voice, a rusty piano and the digital-delay trip of a click-clacking guitar leading the way. (The enveloping “Empire Line” uses similar tricks, and with strings to boot.) “Carin at The Liquor Store,” again led by a piano, has an oddly life-affirming tone to it, contrary to lyrics that intone “I wasn’t a keeper.” The great duopoly of “Walk It Back” and “Born To Beg” are wonderfully lulling material, with fine performances from Berninger. “Dark Side of the Gym” features not only the killer lyrics “I’m gonna keep you in love with me / for a while” but a kind of dark doo-wop sway. But, elsewhere, sadly, the material falls from A to B+, with clumsily executed electronics (the awkward intro to “I’ll Still Destroy You”) or a barn-burning, big-R Rock exercise that’s sadly out-of-place (“Turtleneck”).

All in all, it’s a fine outing and a great fix for those who’ve been hanging onto side projects and side projects alone since Trouble Will Find Me. Now, we’ll wait for the next one and watch as the members of The National further mature and age – and we do, too. – Popdose, Sept. 15, 2017

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