The smouldering Ohio-born indie-rockers have pulled away from their most mainstream moments with an album that is at once listenable and challenging
Smouldering Ohio-born indie-rockers The National have proved slow burners in every sense. Sixteen years on from their arresting self-titled debut album, and 12 years after breakthrough record Alligator, this seventh full-length is the latest evolution of their sound into ever-more palatable suaveness. The quintet are led by the insightful lyricism of frontman Matt Berninger, a man blessed with the ability to craft quirk-laden couplets that cut to the very core of 21st-century life, love and loss – and completed by two sets of brothers with scholarly demeanours.
As per The National’s career, which latterly has seen them as established festival headliners around the world, Sleep Well Beast takes a while to get going, initially ghosting along with a certain world-weariness.
It takes until the sixth track, Turtleneck, for them to crank the volume to any noticeable degree, for a paranoid, elliptical semi-rant full of free association and scattershot cattiness. Things get odder still on I’ll Still Destroy You, with references to “your sister’s best friends in a bath” and the titular threat cutting across skittering drumbeats and orchestral sweeps.
The next two offerings, meanwhile, are quintessential The National: Guilty Party reprises that aforementioned ability to deliver interestingly cut-up percussion, while Berninger surveys the scenery of a marriage struggling with the cloying claustrophobia of middle-class existence. “It’s nobody’s fault, No guilty party, I just got nothing, nothing left to say,” he sighs, with exhausted sadness. By contrast, Carin at the Liquor Store is a half-ballad that reprises a theme of women named Karen/Carin, but the chorus holds a similar level of forlorn exasperation: “So blame it on me, I really don’t care, It’s a foregone conclusion.”
The departing title track, all six-and-a-half minutes of it, is an extended metaphor for hibernating away from life’s travails and it has a fittingly hypnagogic feel. Sleep Well Beast has nary a snarl on its lips, then, but in smoothing out emotional extremes, The National have pulled away from their most mainstream moments with an album that is at once listenable and challenging.