When the middle unravels, it can feel like the end, and we’ll do everything we can to save it.
This is where Sleep Well Beast begins. “Nobody Else Will Be There,” the gripping first track on The National’s seventh album, greets us in the middle. Just thirty-three seconds into the song, under flooding piano, we’ve already crossed the threshold of autumn and are deep into the night. The percussive rhythm, the effect of a hand tapping a guitar, is steady but tense, like pressing a stethoscope to one’s own troubled chest. Everything’s on the verge of breaking. With dissolution in his voice, singer Matt Berninger initiates the album with a question: “You said we’re not so tied together, / what did you mean?”
The words feel raw and poignant, as though searching for clarity from a significant other. However, given the album was written and recorded in the wake of last year’s disastrous election, the phrase “we’re not so tied together” offers another, more virulent meaning—the rending of a nation. Many of us felt our hearts and stomachs turn upside-down last November when the U.S. Republican candidate (who doesn’t deserve name recognition in a five-star review) won. The victory of a bigot and sexist was, and is, a horror impossible to fathom. The shock has worn off, but the disbelief remains, only we’ve now been forced to accept this waking nightmare. In this grim, new reality, Sleep Well Beast is an introspective opus for the fighter in all of us—despite feeling loss and lost, we’re unwilling to let go of what we believe.
From “Nobody Else Will Be There” to the closing title track, the 12-song album impeccably captures the ongoing inner cacophony and heightening agitation, as we struggle to make sense of life post-election. And while The National have long made their political views clear (they’re ardent supporters of Obama and Clinton), to say the album only succeeds as liberal commentary on our domestic state of affairs would be sorely unjust. Whether in the context of societal politics or a more intimate, household domesticity, Sleep Well Beast bristles with conviction and the pleading desire to return to things as they once were. My favorite song on the album, “Empire Line,” beautifully embodies these sentiments, growing in earnestness as it repeatedly entreats, “Can’t you find a way?” while holding tight to idealistic visions (“and I want everything”) that won’t be contained. Anyone who’s ever felt the contemplative power of journeying by train will relate to this epic earwarmer.
In the 16 years since their formation, The National have crafted their songwriting around a scintillating literary universe. Singer and lyricist Matt Berninger, often with help from his wife Carin Besser, have fashioned a lush tapestry that feels anecdotal yet abstract, with recurring characters, places and imagery. Like slipping into a lover’s arms or a collection of treasured short stories from, say Jonathan Ames or J.D. Salinger, the resulting feeling is vivid and a million times reassuring. These cerebral scribbles are enhanced by the compositional mastery and nuanced instrumentation of the band’s two sets of brothers. Trained across classical, rock and jazz, guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner formulate The National’s music, while drummer Bryan Devendorf and bassist Scott Devendorf provide the underlying rhythmic structure and tempo.
Though it may sound like the impassioned utterance of a biased fan, the five-piece come together perfectly. I find myself entirely enveloped and electrified by their songs; this is not mere pleasantry fit for backgrounds. Rich with flourish and texture, there’s so much to fascinate. One of the first singles I heard from the album, “Guilty Party,” employs trumpet flair so effectively that although the song is filled with heavy resignation, it’s become my go-to when I run.
The National’s distinct, unshackling aesthetic has characterized their work since 2005’s Alligator, but where many of their albums have had all-out, racy, rambunctious tunes with Matt’s trademark screaming, this latest is less volatile. I can’t help but miss the spiraling-with-abandon release I get from older songs like “Abel” (Alligator), “Squalor Victoria” (Boxer) and “Graceless” (Trouble Will Find Me). But they would be out of sync here. The closest we come is the single “Day I Die,” where the drums charge and the mind-altering impulses rage, bursting and diffusing like fireworks in the brain.
But Sleep Well Beast has its own slinky magnetism, influenced by new cities (the band have dispersed geographically after spending many years together in New York City) and their various side projects since 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. It’s breezy, yet textured; jazzy, yet constrained. In places, it even has a hazy nostalgic ‘50s quality, as if recalibrating toward the illusion of sanity we once bought into. While listening to Sleep Well Beast, I often find myself recalling the gauzy, experimental aura of The Sea and Cake and dramatic orchestral mastery of the Rachel’s. It navigates the liminal spaces—between wakefulness and sleep, escape and enclosure and even life and death—carefully and artfully.
In the dimness of our times, The National can’t divine miracles to save us from the impact of the hideous absurdity who’s tweeting from the White House. But they can afford us refuge and solidarity, and remind us to stay vigilant and awake. For one day soon, this nightmare will end and we’ll put the beast to bed.
Notable Tracks: “Born to Beg” | “Empire Line” | “Guilty Party” | “Nobody Else Will Be There” | “Sleep Well Beast”