Ambitious Perfection from The National
It’s not often that one finds a talent like The National, though under the radar (in the larger sense), it seems almost criminal to have a gathering of such skilled musicians and songwriters to operate under the same moniker. Historically, The National has garnered more comparisons to contemporaries within the genre than they have rock legends, but it seems fairer to make comparisons to groups like Tool and Led Zeppelin than Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver. The primary difference between these is that, while the aforementioned musicians certainly stand on the same ground of critical success as The National, they are singular acts, a leading mind and collaborators, while The National may be the last great indie band, if not the greatest and most consistent, and Sleep Well Beast may well be their best release.
Upon hearing the first track “Nobody Else Will Be There,” no one could be blamed for thinking that this will be the most mellow album from The National to date, but they will ultimately be proven wrong by “Turtleneck,” “Day I Die” and “Empire Line.” Regardless, the opening track is an expert feint that tricks the listener and foreshadows at the rest of the album. This is easily the most varied album from The National and incorporates the most ambitious sound palate of any record they have put out. Some may be eager to claim that this is The National’s Age of Adz or their Yeezus, but it may even exceed those records, not in terms of experimentation, but in terms of overall execution. Yeezus for instance was an intentional abandonment of Kanye West’s previous work, and Age of Adz also took a hard left and remains almost completely alone within the discography of Sufjan Stevens (barring his work with Sisyphus). On the contrary, Sleep Well Beast does not shy away from its predecessors; instead it fully embraces the sound of classics like High Violet and Boxer and infuses them with a more ambitious, electronically focused sound, which breathes life into the album as a culmination of their work to date rather than a shot in the dark at something they’ve never done.
Sleep Well Beast is also by far the most “band-centric” album from The National. It’s often easy to look at past albums and see the contributions of Matt Beringer, the Dessner brothers, and Scott and Bryan Devendorf within individual tracks or records. Boxer is strongly claimed by Beringer, and High Violet is more focused in on the instrumental elements of the record. Sleep Well Beast on the other hand is not only a supremely varied, yet cohesive work as an album, it shows a stunning display of collaboration from the band itself. One such instance is on “The Day I Die,” which features the unsung hero of the band, drummer Bryan Devendorf, laying down some of the most compelling drum work to grace any single album from The National, and he goes on to do this in almost every single song on the record. While Devendorf may be the hero of the album, pulling together each song with endlessly listenable rhythm, the contributions of the Dessner brothers, on both keyboard and guitar cannot be overstated, the guitar performances have never been this good on any other album from the band and the keyboard parts take Sleep Well Beast to an ambitious and previously untouched level. The bass performances by Scott Devendorf also add levels of depth to the more energetic “Turtleneck” and “Empire Line.” It should, at this point, go without saying that Matt Beringer may be the best songwriter and lyricist of the modern era, and Sleep Well Beast goes a long way towards making that case.
Lyrically, The National have never been stronger. From heartbreakingly specific lyrics like “Years and years I used to put my head inside the speakers in the hallway when you’d get too high and talk forever”on “The Day I Die” to the hilariously critical lyrics on “Turtleneck” that directly mock the throngs of Apple fans with “They try to turn them off but everything they switch to is just another man in shitty suits everybody’s cheering for. This must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for.” But this extends further to criticize all trend hoppers. This album is also Beringer’s most impressive vocal performance so far — the above mentioned “Turtleneck” features vocal theatrics that were hinted at on songs like Boxer’s “Apartment Story” and “Walk It Back” and “Sleep Well Beast” have an almost ASMR quality to them when he closes in on the mic and whispers in grumbling bass tones. All of these factors, when put together lead to what may be the best release from The National.
While the year has seen some stellar releases from the likes of LCD Soundsystem, Brand New, Blanck Mass, and Mount Eerie, all of them seem eclipsed in the wake of Sleep Well Beast. Any album from The National is bound to generate excitement and turn some heads, but Sleep Well Beast is on another level entirely from the rest of their discography. It has all the passion of Boxer all the cohesion of Trouble Will Find Me and all of the instrumental power of High Violet. This is a seminal work being released right before our very eyes and has the power to impact indie music for years to come, there is nothing that could ever have been done to deserve a project of this quality, and it is multiple body lengths ahead in the previously close race for the album of the year and deserves to be listened to by anyone who has ears regardless of age or preference.