–by Joshua Beane–
The first time I heard The National, I was standing on Summers Street in Charleston, waiting to meet a friend for lunch. As my friend approached me, she removed her earbuds and I asked her what she was listening to. She responded that it was The National’s album High Violet and told me that it was one of the best things she’d ever heard. She handed me the earbuds and hit play, unleashing “Bloodbuzz Ohio” from the 2010 album.
I was taken aback by The National, which immediately reminded me of Joy Division. The best bands usually remind you of something else, and sometimes, part of really paying attention to music is finding out what specific things are at work when that happens. With The National, it was the vocals and drums. Unlike Joy Division, the core of the National’s sound is distinctly American with undeniable elements of the most arduously defined genre: Americana.
More than anything else, I was struck by the deliberateness in The National’s songs. If you spend some time listening, you’ll quickly find that this is not unique to a song or even an album; this is a National hallmark that spans the band’s entire oeuvre. This group plays music that sounds exactly how it is supposed to sound. It’s no wonder The National’s guitarist, Bryce Dessner, is also a successful contemporary classical composer, as the band has a classical precision.
Fast forward to today and The National’s new album, Sleep Well Beast . What remains for a band after seven records and nearly eighteen years as a creative force? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Sleep Well Beast is a triumphant return. The familiar National sound is still present, but the band has managed to find ways to expand it. This is the most interesting work since High Violet, but it’s also the most musically adventurous of any work in the band’s discography.
Of particular note, Sleep Well Beast ’s second track, “Day I Die,” features those recognizable Joy Division/New Order drums. The song addresses the realization that a relationship has grown hopeless and moribund. Deviating from the somber or morose way the aforementioned bands might have approached such a topic, The National surprises the listener with a song that possesses an almost anthem-like chorus. Instead of the defeatism of depression or some godawful Pollyanna bullshit, National frontman Matt Berninger presents the stoic acceptance of real life. Life is hard, but it goes on until it doesn’t. Berninger offers the perspective of a survivor, albeit one who is nonetheless scarred from the experience.
“Turtleneck” emerges as the biggest surprise on the record by offering a proper rave up, although certainly one within the broad range of the band’s palate. Although its lyrics take some deciphering, “Turtleneck” sees the The National, a band that has regularly been political without being a “political band,” delve into politics. Regardless, it is without question the most rock ‘n’ roll song the band has ever authored.
“Guilty Party” is the best song on the album. Like “Day I Die,” it depicts the twilight of a failing relationship. Here, however, Berninger is specific about the unwinding process.
“I say your name / I say I’m sorry
I’m the one doing this / There’s no other way
It’s nobody’s fault / No guilty party
I just got nothing / Nothing left to say”
The author refuses to lay blame for the failure, recognizing that not everything has to be someone’s fault; it’s just not working. The drum loop overlying the piano motif in “Guilty Party” evokes classic Radiohead, but Berninger’s lyrics are far more plain and unordained than anything of Thom Yorke’s that comes to mind. There is no real interpretation apparent here; he is simply telling the listener a story. The vignette is so universal and so poignant that every single person I know who has heard that song immediately linked it to an episode in his or her own life. A song like this can literally change your life and offer you the gift of perspective on yourself that you may have lacked. Only the finest art does that.
Sleep Well Beast is the best record from The National since High Violet. Had LCD Soundsystem not put out an instant classic this past year, Sleep Well Beast would probably be the record of 2017. But forget about all that. The National has released an excellent record. It is one well worth your time.
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