Albums by The National are like your friendly neighborhood lush: In just an hour or so, they’re able to drink you under the table, say something profound enough to make the whole bar weep, then stumble out into the pre-dawn, proud and ashamed in equal measure. They also tend to be sneaky, both lyrically and musically—it’s kind of their trick, to insinuate themselves slowly over time, appearing at first to be more meditative and less hooky than they actually are. The band’s seventh album in just shy of 20 years as a band is more direct with both its words and sounds. That makes sense, given these angry, depressing times: There’s not a lot of room for resignation or even patience when it feels like the world—political for sure, and in the case of this album, personal—is falling apart. Can those things be spun into relevant, redemptive music? That’s tricky business, but in the case of The National, turmoil has always been potent fuel, and Sleep Well Beast is the band’s fifth album in a row that feels essential, connected, and unflinching.
It begins, though, almost imperceptibly, with a slowly rising, vaguely electronic beat, as if it’s creeping into the room. That’s the even-more-Leonard Cohen-esque-than-usual “Nobody Else Will Be There,” driven by a simple beat—a motif here—and bare-bones piano line. It’s Sleep Well Beast’s first examination of a relationship on the rocks, fueled by familiar contempt, and a gorgeous example of singer Matt Berninger’s specialty: the one-sided conversation. “Can’t we just go home?” he quietly pleads. That song packs a brutal one-two punch with the much more immediate, harrowing, spectacularly catchy “Day I Die,” which begins, “I don’t need you / I don’t need you / Besides I barely even see you anymore.” The equally haunting slow burner “Guilty Party” also goes down that road, echoing Dave Mason’s 1977 breakup hit “We Just Disagree” (only, y’know, good). Berninger recently told a worried NPR interviewer that, while Sleep Well Beast has threads of divorce running through it, his relationship with his wife/frequent lyrical collaborator Carin Besser is solid. Phew.
But the pressure isn’t just about growing up or growing old: The National has always been actively political, but rarely very direct about it. “Turtleneck,” while it doesn’t actually name Donald Trump, is clearly born from the frustration of our times. (“Just another man in shitty suits that everybody’s cheering for.”) It also features the album’s second guitar solo, after the ’80s-rock one in “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness.” Guitar solos aren’t at all typical for The National, but neither is it unwelcome—these are drastic times. And while the primal scream of “Turtleneck” isn’t Sleep Well Beast’s best song, it might be the most necessary.
The best comes down to a race between “I’ll Still Destroy You” and “Carin At The Liquor Store.” The former feels like a statement: Abstract and spooky, it embraces the album’s near-constant electronic undercarriage more fully. It’s joyous, weird, and eventually heartbreaking, and then it wanders off into a minute-long jam, not just because it can, but because it clearly wants to. “Carin At The Liquor Store” is more in classic National mode, with inorganic beats replaced by a very human piano and Berninger’s baritone, close-up voice. It’s also one of the album’s only love songs—though of course, it comes at the subject sideways and desperately. It’s gorgeous.
The fair-yet-wrong criticism leveled at The National over the years has been that all of the band’s records sound the same (or, worse and even more wrong, that they’re boring and they all sound the same). Sleep Well Beast probably won’t change the minds of naysayers, though it may earn the asterisk of being “the one with slightly more electronic sounds.” But those invested in the band’s slow-motion refinement of simmering melancholy will find that they’ve discovered yet more fresh nuance to that sound, as they seem to every time. It’s by turns harsh and sweet, downcast and uplifting, angry and resigned. In spite of how quiet it can be, and what the title might instruct, Sleep Well Beast is never restful. In fact, it may be The National’s most agitated album yet.