Few bands are able to maintain a high level of respect from their peers, critics and fans for as long as the The National has. The release of its seventh studio album, Sleep Well Beast, comes at a pivotal, albeit confusing, phase for the band. The project is a breath of fresh air for a group has thrived off of its guitar-heavy melancholia for 18 years, despite sharing less time in the studio together.
While The National’s popularity has continued to grow, each member has spent much of his time since 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me exploring his own work. In the meantime, principal songwriter Aaron Dessner collaborated with frontman Matt Berninger, known for his lyrical obscurity in past projects. The product is a record that feels every bit as grand, complex and emotive as the Cincinnati indie rockers’ devoted following desires.
Sleep Well Beast observes the melancholy rock giants comfortably atop their throne. Bands that develop an emotionally gripping sound over seven albums rarely hear their music described as “fresh,” but Dessner’s incorporation of modern sounds earns this description. The album’s heavy use of electronic instruments aids in The National’s innovation. Synthesizers, electric guitars and drum kits provide the album with a focus not typical of the band’s previous projects.
Berninger distinguishes himself from his traditional influences like The Smiths, Joy Division and Nick Cave. He has a tendency to sound more reserved than Morrissey, but his personality appears to open up on this record. Berninger again switches between his typical personas of the solemn scholar and the unruly dinner guest. However, this project sees Berninger unafraid to be vulnerable as he fully embraces his emotions. This change is not a new persona, but rather an observation of existing ones unhinged.
The album’s second track “Day I Die” brings the sophistication and introspection from the best of Boxer and Trouble Will Find Me to arena rock. Dessner’s investment in electric guitars pays off as his piercing chords trade blows with Beringer’s inspired vocals. The increased tempo and tightened drum arrangements give energy to an otherwise somber song. “Guilty Party” is another wistful effort that benefits from these sped-up arrangements. This track has less of the arena-rock appeal of other album cuts and it sounds like it would fit well within their early work.
“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is as wintery and serious of a first single as it is radio-friendly. The song is a testament to Dessner’s versatility as a producer, as it seamlessly shifts between bass drums suited for an indie film soundtrack and stadium-rocking guitar solos. It’s fairly easy to understand why this track was selected to be the lead single — it’s monumental. Berninger croons with his typical baritone to build up the weight of the song’s bridges before unleashing his upper register during the chorus. Above all, the stellar track unveils an indisputable truth: The National knows how to play with listeners’ emotions.
In many ways, Sleep Well Beast is not the product of musical veterans that feel obligated to be especially experimental or curious. The National is much more confident in its longevity. This confidence has alleviated many pressures, and Sleep Well Beast is a product of this relief. Berninger is a frontman who has only recently tapped into the true value of his vulnerability, while Dessner’s confidence pours over into his experimentation in the studio. The National is a band with nothing left to prove, but this project proves that it is a band with everything to explore.