The National: Sleep Well Beast review – a study in midlife angst

The acclaimed US band’s seventh album ramps up the complexity – and the self-flagellation

By now, most listeners will probably have a take on the National, originally out of Brooklyn via Cincinnati, now residing as far apart as LA and Copenhagen. Two pairs of multi-instrumentalist brothers and a lanky, lugubrious frontman, they deal in literate rock that presents at first as artily sombre, and eventually as one of the most nuanced 21st-century iterations of what used to be known as “college rock”.

Ten years on from their breakout album, 2007’s Boxer, the National come packing more filigree – just listen to the jazzy sussurations and sneaky digitals on the title track – and more heft. Having survived a number of extracurricular musical dalliances, they have, on this evidence, also happily bypassed the smugness that could come of success.

Nothing on Sleep Well Beast is headline-new. But you are either in singer Matt Berninger’s corner, clinging on as he drills down into his anxieties, or you are wondering why even validated white guys in first-world countries can still eat themselves up inside so insatiably.

Then there’s the tension created by the hyper-musical brother duos, pacing the cage of what “rock band” means with increased vigour. It often adds up to a subtle, grown-up take that still leaves space for drama – Turtleneck, for one, has the energising air of a Nick Cave song.

Elsewhere, it makes for aural intrigue – as on I’ll Still Destroy You, a restless, semi-digital ballad that contrasts what the Dessner and Devendorf brothers can do underneath Berninger’s self-flagellating croon. Sometimes you wonder, however, whether a rougher and readier digital sketch like Walk It Back might have benefited from even more directness. The track ends with the re-voiced sample of a purported Karl Rove speech (“We are history’s actors…”) which just dangles, not discernibly contextualised. Berninger has hinted that the “beast” of the album title might be the positive energy of future generations, but again the songs don’t bear this out.

If you were Berninger’s in-laws, Sleep Well Beast might make for some awkward silences at Thanksgiving. Berninger might seem like ideal bohemian husband material – urbane, with few of the liabilities endemic to the role of lead singer – but he queries every relationship, every comfort. “I wasn’t a catch/ I wasn’t a keeper,” goes Carin at the Liquor Store, a love song, “I was wandering around like the one who found dead John Cheever in the house of love.” Carin Besser is the real name of Berninger’s partner, which prompts the usual head-scratching about writerly distance.

Another desperately sad song, Guilty Party, only piles on the midlife romantic anomie. The cheery trumpet is certainly not helping, parping away in the background as a sinkhole opens up, swallowing certainty. Autobiography, or not? The plot only thickens when you learn that Besser has a hand in the lyric-writing, just as Tom Waits’s partner, Kathleen Brennan, does. Ultimately, though, these fudged irresolutions – political and romantic – tantalise more than they distract. As the National keep proving, little is ever straightforward.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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