The National return to correct some of the mistakes of their last album and fall into new pitfalls at the same time. It’s the definition of a mixed bag.
|Artist: The National
Album Title: Sleep Well Beast
Genre: Indie Rock
The National are a band that has done it the hard way. For their first two or three albums they all worked other jobs outside of being in the band, and the music they were playing back then was a bit of a hard sell. The first record was pure alt-country music with lead singer Matt Berninger’s baritone rumbling over slow, dragging acoustic guitars. Their second (and weakest) record was more electric but otherwise more of the same. Critics didn’t care and neither did audiences really. By the time their third (2005’s Alligator) came out I think they’d had enough of being ignored. Berninger started shouting and screaming and the group started to rock as much as they swayed listeners into a sleepy repose. Alligator is a fantastic album, full of raw energy and passion yet cynical depression as well.
The follow-up album, Boxer, is where the band started to craft the sound that would make them famous. The band are perennially somewhere between being soporifically boring and anthemic, managing (at their best) to pack in a whole load of dichotomies with tension and anxiety being offset by determination and confidence, quiet stillness giving way to linear, driving heaviness. It’s meekly powerful music.
Trouble Will Find Me, the band’s 2013 album, sort of ruined this. The anthems (“Graceless”, “Sea of Love”) were monotone and dull. The slow, sentimental ones like “I Need My Girl” were hackneyed and trite. It was also the album where Berninger began to exclusively sing about himself, which nobody wants. The self-indulgence became overwhelming, giving credence to critics of the band who would scoff at the middle-class faux emptiness and self-prescribed midlife crises the band embodied.
Sleep Well Beast completely sidesteps Trouble Will Find Me’s lyrical foibles. Berninger worked closely with wife, Carin on the themes and lyrics of this latest outing, examining and dissecting troubled relationships in a way that anyone who has been in love can surely relate to. The band make it easy to project yourself onto the scenarios they convey, like not being able to sleep for thinking about everything going wrong with your partner (“Guilty Party”), or wondering if your relationship will last forever or is doomed to fail (“Day I Die”). It’s all a bit easy, really, but I admire the honesty and it makes this record very palatable.
The band manages to tick another couple of boxes on this album as well. It’s solid and consistent (for the most part), never really straying away from the gloomy, naval-gazing tone they craft. It’s their most mid-tempo offering, blending electronic percussion with live drums and building from the piano rather than guitars more than before. When the band finally gets around to their faster, rockier track (“Turtleneck”) it’s so drastically out of place it’s almost rude. I can’t tell if I’m happy it’s there or not; by the letter of the law it shouldn’t be but is breaking the malaise really such a bad thing?
Berninger’s vocal performances are pretty questionable. One admirable thing about the group as a whole in the past is they managed to be complex and intricate whilst appearing like they’re not even trying. On this album I genuinely think Berninger just isn’t trying very hard. His phrases fit pretty clumsily with the instrumentation and the vocal takes sound like they’re barely spoken, let along sung. I’m sure it’s deliberate and on another album it might be commendable, but here you’re just left wanting SOMEBODY to give you a little bit more. Nothing takes the limelight, which makes Sleep Well Beast problematic to listen through.
What are we to make of this mixed bag? On the one hand there’s the desire to listen more closely, get more invested in the storytelling and pick up on those small sonic details we missed the first time around. On the other hand if this album ceased exist tomorrow would anybody really be that bothered?
What do you think? Leave a comment below!