Since Boxer, Matt Berninger, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Bryan and Scott Devendorf have stamped a decade's worth of songs with their own particular, stylistic emblem. While there have been a few outliers with teeth and muscle in their catalog, it's hard not to think of a National song as a specific thing. It's slow burning and romantic, densely layered with piano balladry, precise swells of atmospheric guitars, horns, string arrangements, and understated percussion. All and all, a stately package for Berninger to lament his wine-drunk neurosis over, with devastating emotional effect. National fans really love The National. But will they love Sleep Well Beast?
I ask because, with each listen, the album is starting to feel like a rather seismic shift in the band's trajectory. This shift was signaled early when the band released a fit of laser-cut screeches, rhythmic tribal pounces and yes…a straight up guitar solo in the form of "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" a couple months ago. The rest of the album seems to meander down unworn paths as well. This is a darker version of The National, just in time for these darker times we now inhabit. There are also more electronic and percussive propulsions pushing these songs along, which technically means this collection rocks just a bit harder than previous albums do. I mean, I don't think there is another song like "Turtleneck" in The National's catalog. There are also some weirdly loose and (dare I say) free-form moments on the album as well. Look no further than the album's drugged-out, title track. Sleep Well Beast is just…different, though I haven't listened to enough of it to count all of the reasons why.
I suspect much of the crowd on hand Friday night hadn't either, having had only a few hours to absorb the album before the gig. No matter. The band played the album front to back and the crowd of 400 or so treated the performance like a listening party. There were less cell phones blocking the view than usual, and the crowd seemed quieter, honed in on the rare opportunity to hear an album live in full for the first time.
As for Berninger, I'm also probably in need of a few closer listens before I even begin to understand where he's at at this particular moment in time. But judging by his admittance on Friday night that he broke down around mid-November last year and one of the only things that pulled him out was his pal Sufjan Stevens' Carrie and Lowell (who joined the band on stage for a few songs), there is probably some existential, post-election processing happening within the lyrics of Sleep Well Beast.
But I also hear/see hope in Sleep Well Beast as well. Berninger seems more comfortable than ever at the helm of the band, though his voice has more graveled edges than it used to. A couple years back he figured out that the crutch of an iPad with the lyrics on it was a remedy for some pretty serious stage anxiety. Now he's able to enjoy what's happening around him a little more. And at this performance he was aided by some goofy stress balls his daughter had given him that day.
There's also a line on the song "Born to Beg" that jumps right off the page (and jumped right off the stage on Friday as well). "New York is older and changing its skin again/It dies every 10 years, and then it begins again". Yes, Berninger is older than he used to be. Perhaps he's growing comfortable with that. But Boxer was also released 10 years ago. Perhaps The National are just beginning again.
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