ALBUM REVIEW: The National – Sleep Well Beast (2017)

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Autumn is here, and with perfect regularity another sobering The National record has fallen from the tree of indie rock like a sad, bruised little fruit. Yes – everybody’s favourite baritone crooners are back to squeeze out the last few drops of optimism and sunshine from the summer, and give us a healthy dose of cruel and dissapointing Reality.

This is a band whose ability to wring emotional and romantic turmoil from moody, mid-paced rock music is almost unparalleled, and over the past decade they’ve released a string of great albums that have done exactly that – 2007’s Boxer, 2010’s High Violet, and 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. Up until this point, however, it’s fair to say that The National have not been the world’s most adventurous band.

Sleep Well Beast looks to change that, and is the first National album to experiment with the band’s core sound, albeit only slightly. There are sprinklings of electronics to be heard throughout the record, from the gentle tones in the background of ‘Day I Die’ to the sequenced drums in ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’. The electronics add an extra layer of depth to the album’s sound without ever being revolutionary, but at this stage of the band’s career a bit of variety goes a long way.

There are also moments on this record that get louder than we’ve ever heard from the band before: ‘Turtleneck’ has a raucous, stomping chorus with shades of cowpunk and Nick Cave, and ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ builds to a fittingly destructive climax of synths, drums and strings.

The majority of Sleep Well Beast, though, much like previous National albums, consists of very beautiful piano ballads and indie rock slow-burners with cryptic, poetic lyrics courtesy of Matt Berninger. This time around, a majority of songs are about marriage and the struggles contained within, and many of the lyrics Berninger in fact co-wrote with his wife.

Sometimes they are gorgeously fatalistic (‘I was born to beg for you’) while at other moments the romantic drama feels a bit too unspecificied to really affect. The greatest lyrical moments are those where Berninger gets a bit more figurative with his images, like these from ‘Ill Still Destroy You’: ‘This one’s like your sister’s best friends in a bath / Calling you to join them…/This one’s like your mothers arms when she was young and sunburned in the 80’s’.

Sleep Well Beast‘s final quarter is perhaps its only weak point – I find the last three tracks all a bit too similar to those that came before, and lacking the same energy. The closer in particular is a bit of a dribble, opening almost identically to ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ and featuring those same words in its chorus.

But all the same, this is another fantastic record from The National. It finds them taking just enough risks to remain compelling, broadening their music while keeping it as  eloquently bittersweet as a tear drop falling in to a glass of wine.

8.3/10

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