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Review: The National Are a Revitalized Band on the Bleak and Ambitious Sleep Well Beast

The National, traditionally, have been at their best when they sound like they’re either playing on a mountaintop or blearily muddling through a song in a small, slightly-disintegrating south-Brooklyn apartment, as if trying not to disturb the neighbors. These contrasts were once starkly, powerfully delineated: “Daughters of the Soho Riots” versus “Abel,” “Racing Like a Pro” versus “Mistaken for Strangers.” But Sleep Well Beast, the band’s new album, is created by a version of themselves that sounds both increasingly world-weary and stunningly refreshed. It begins and ends in hallways with glasses of gin–scenes suited to the more claustrophobic side of the band’s musical inclinations. Instead of accidentally devolving into self-parody, The National, once scrappy underdogs, ended up with a strong candidate for the most inventive big-budget rock album of the year.

The opening moments of Sleep Well Beast are dominated by Matt Berninger’s pronounced vocal fry and a damaged drum machine that sounds like webbed feet padding across a wet rock. He attempts to set up one of his trademark secret meetings and stage a reconciliation: “You said we’re not so tied together, what did you mean?/Meet me in the stairwell in a second, for a glass of gin.” The song, “Nobody Else Will Be There,” operates in the same motorik musical vein as the title track, dominated a precarious IDM-ish loop that Berninger croaks over in near-spoken-word like a groggy Nick Cave surrogate. “We been stuck out here in the hallway for way way too long/I’m at a loss,” he groans. Later, he hopes for another possible commiseration over some Seagrams:  “I’ll see you at the end of the party with your wild white eyes/Filling up a teacup with gin in your secret postcard life.”

The general sentiment and the intimacy of these songs are familiar from everything The National have ever done. The musical delivery is very much not. The programming and synth throbs are not anomalies on Sleep Well Beast. The band seems to have earnestly built most of the arrangements on their first album in four years around electronic wonk and noise, rather than layering it later on to create some patina of experimentalism. Sleep Well Beast isn’t quite a Kid-A-level revamp for The National, but the band, now enwreathed in ring-modulator screeches, radio static and blown-out percussion pads, have never sounded less like a collection of dudes playing guitars in a room.

The familiar instruments are often crowded into small pockets of the mix. Ghostly string orchestras, mallet-like synths and maybe actual mallets, and ribboning bits of distorted voices threaten to crowd them out, alluding to chords rather than thrumming them insistently. More generally, the band is experimenting with layering and gradual dynamics like never before, deceptively building to their songs’ climaxes and revelations rather than snapping to easy musical conclusions. Sleep Well Beast, in other words, is The National’s boldest and most subtle album all at once.

Perhaps the reconstruction should have come an album ago, or even two, since Sleep Well Beast is probably their most consistently commanding group of songs since 2007’s Boxer. There are remnants of the placid, stadium-band-in-the-making that surfaced on Trouble Will Find Me, as that trajectory has not been totally stunted by the defeatist pall hanging over this album. Occasionally, on the record’s most ambitious songs (see, in particular, the tectonic shifts of “I’ll Still Destroy You”) the band seems to move seamlessly through every mood and style they’ve ever attempted. The-Edge-like guitar blasts that assault the listener at the beginning on the streamlined rocker “Day I Die” are the kind of things that make Alligator-head traditionalists, who never expected their one-time cult fave to become festival headliners and take pictures with the president, nervous.

But Berninger pits an subtle, churning melodic motif against the straightforward lick. He comes to his ultimate pithy realization just as all the guitars begin to blare in sync. This kind of thing has been, and still is, the general roadmap for strong National songs. They move from brooding monotony into dim pools of natural light–roomy piano chords to dial up the drama–to hyperdrive, while Berninger chances the top of his fragile range. They dredge up intense, nostalgic emotional impressions when heard at the right moment and volume.

The National have never made an album this musically ornate, and they occasionally risk satisfying their overactive imaginations. Still, the spiny choreography of the increasingly chameleonic band never supersedes Berninger’s own contributions. His melodic and lyrical writing, collaborations with his wife Carin Besser, retain what has always made him such an powerful and unlikely master of ceremonies, even as he modestly explores new expressive ground in his performances. He’s still carrying off lines that might sound like snippets from bad New Yorker fiction in someone else’s delivery: “It’s getting cold again but New York’s gorgeous/It’s a subway day.” He owns his most unlikely proper nouns, the ones that refocus his strangely-tweaking platitudes. On “Carin at the Liquor Store, he dares to replay the line “I was walking around like I was the one who found dead John Cheever” until you either believe him or just learn to deal with it.

Berninger remains an unreliable narrator, never the amour fou heartbreaker or oracle of wisdom his characters seem to believe they are. There is more than a little of late-era Leonard Cohen in his subterranean delivery, but the substance of the songs is more reminiscent of the late singer-songwriter in his more libidinous, less sage mid-to-late ’70s period. One song, “Dark Side of the Gym” shares its title with a crucial line from one of Cohen’s most lascivious songs. Like the delusional lothario Cohen embodies there, Berninger constantly tries to assert control (“I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while”) but ends up alone with his nightmares (“I have dreams of anonymous castratti singing to us from the trees/I have dreams of the first man and first lady singing to us from the sea”).

The National seemed ready for a shift, both in the trajectory of their discography and their career. Four years after Trouble, the Dessner brothers are on the other side of many new and elaborate compositional projects, from soundtracks to florid Grateful Dead arrangements; Bryce is now an accomplished post-minimalist composer, more-than-adept with effectively blending disparate types of sound and layering contradictory rhythms to form crowded, dizzying backbeats. Berninger got some stray ideas off with his variegated EL VY side project, and seems to have found different things he wanted to say here. By force of his own still-curious personality and the rest of the band’s strong pop and organizational instincts, Sleep Well Beast manages to create a daring new prototype for the band: a collection of fiercely creative and overworked individuals locating common ground again. The libretto and effects boards on Sleep Well Beast may signal doom, but the replenished energy in the music feels life-affirming. Somehow, the most despondent album they’ve ever made still sounds like a celebration.