“Sleep Well Beast sees The National embrace the brooding doom and gloom grandeur of the past with a twist”
Four years have elapsed since we last heard from Brooklyn natives and indie heavyweights, The National . Riding the wave of four critically acclaimed albums and the first since 2013’s “Trouble Will Find Me”, we see the duo of brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Bryan and Scott Devendorf alongside charismatic lead singer Matt Berninger fully embrace the brooding doom and gloom that makes The National great to begin with, only this time with twist.
In the time between 2013’s “Trouble Will Find Me” and the recently released “Sleep Well Beast” all four members have gone on to experiment in various side projects,each with its own distinct flavours. Guitarist Aaron Dessner spent the time away from the National honing in on his production chops lending them over to various projects including co producing Lisa Hannigan’s acclaimed 2016 LP “At Swim”. He also went on to produce the mammoth 59 track “Day of the Dead” charity tribute album to the Grateful Dead which featured the likes of Bruce Hornsby, Jenny Lewis and Matthew Houck of Phosphorent to name a few. His twin guitarist Bryce Dessner spent most of his time off from the band moonlighting as a classically trained composer, writing compositions for the LA Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic and the Sydney Opera House, while also in that time co-scoring the Oscar award winning film “The Revenant” alongside Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto.
The brothers who both now live in Europe, one in Copenhagan and the other in Paris also spent sometime last year experimenting with electronic duo Mouse on Mars, who joined them for a multi day artist residency at the Michelberger Hotel in Berlin . The residency also had the likes of Justin Vernon and company join in on the fun . The break between albums saw the ever so distinctive rhythm section of The National comprised of drummer and bassist Bryan and Scott Devendorf team up with Beirut and frequent National collaborator Ben Lanz to form LNZNDRF, a nostalgic psychedelic band with its heartbeat in the late 80’s and 90’s. The time off also proved much needed and beneficial for frontman and lyrical aficionado Matt Berninger, which saw the baritoned frontman step out of the brooding spotlight of The National to team up with Brent Knopf of Menomena to form EL VY, a post punk dance duo reminiscent of the best that Talking Heads and The Smiths have to offer.
All the collective and individual experimentation experienced and acquired by the band members in there time away from The National, created ingredients for the follow up to the critically acclaimed ” Trouble Will Find Me” that see’s the band returning to its glory days of fan favourite 2010’s “Boxer”, while at the same time taking their grandeur sound to new and exciting directions. Peppered with its subtle and effectively used bits and pieces of electronic synths, keyboards and samples, no doubt influenced by the Dessner’s time spent experimenting with electronic elements in Berlin. The introduction of these new elements has allowed the band to further elevate their brand of atmospheric delay and reverbed washed guitars, tom heavy drum patterns, lush wall of brass and strings and the poetic lyrics of Matt Berninger to Glastonbury headlining new heights. Sleep Well Beast showcases a band 20 years into their career and at the very top of their game.
Final track and album highlight “Sleep Well Beast” veers into unfamiliar territory for the group. Opening with a looped programmed drum pattern and OP-1 engineered samples that easily could have been taken straight out of Radiohead’s Kid A playbook. The minimalism of the track’s arrangement creates the perfect backdrop from Matt Berninger, who puts on his best Leonard Cohen suit, as we see him deliver a subtly melodic spoken word like cadence of lyrics addressing the uncertainty and doubt of middle age, and the hardships of trying to balance the responsibilities of fatherhood, a failing marriage and rock stardom.The track and album concludes in classic National fashion, with an epic combustion of sound, that one can almost say sounds as if the instrumentation is collapsing on itself, a beautiful effect as Berninger quietly whispers over the drama “I’ll still destroy you someday sleep well beast, you as well beast”.
Who the “beast” is he is referring too could be anyone’s guess, the beauty of Matt Berningers’ lyrics has always been the abstract universe in which they exist in, open to various interpretation with each listen. One thing is certain with Sleep Well Beast, The National has proven that the best days of this band have still yet to be written, and for die hard fans like myself its an exciting time to be a fan of The National.