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“DD Review: The National – Sleep Well Beast.”

Score: 9/10

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It’s ironic, when you think about it, that The National are so universally revered and Coldplay are so universally plundered, because the two bands are really very similar. They came around at just about the same time as each other and their singers sound pretty alike over melodramatic pop/rock. Of course, Coldplay’s lyrical themes are more common among radio airwave territory (which ironically materializes as uncommon in humanity, like these high-falutin’ love stories). This could be one possible reason why they’re Boris to The National’s Bullwinkle, another of course being the depressing possibility that they’re so hated for being British. In defense then of the polarization, The National are definitely more texturally complex and they probably have more songs which could be classified as “good.” But come on, have they REALLY ever written a paean as glorious as “The Scientist”? It probably depends if you’re asking an American or a Brit. Further along these lines, though, it’s like, people get on my case all the time for being a Califone fan, all like it’s so MELLOW, they beat Coldplay’s balls for complaining… well what the HE** DO THE NATIONAL DO BUT MELLOWLY COMPLAIN? I’d love to know. Maybe they whip up a wicked Jalapeno IPA in their spare time.
Now, just to be clear, I am a whole-hearted fan of The National, having actually been told by a dream to listen to High Violet back in 2010 despite what I perceived as a relative stylistic softness. How could they PACK all that catchiness and feeling into such a low range of volume, such a delicate mix? But they did. Trouble Will Find Me, 2013’s masterpiece from the band, even has the beautiful earmark of possibly being sung from the perspective of Matt Berninger’s brother Tom. According to a New Yorker article which I can’t seem to find now, Tom Berninger at one point was stricken with financial hardship, his life almost devastated, and had to move back in with Matt, who supported him briefly. The whole thing led apparently to a film chronicling Tom’s accompaniment of them on a concert tour, and more importantly, some personal but esoteric lyrics and the absolute ringer of plangent, cloudy-day anthems that was “Demons.”
Now along the lines of The National’s album coming out during some brutal weather all over the Eastern half of the United States, this is kinda/sorta notable because Sleep Well Beast is the first National album not to be released in spring, a repeated tradition which so I’m told used to spawn quite the gathering in New York, like a festival-type event. I was looking online and didn’t find anything denoting any shindig around Sleep Well Beast’s unveiling, certainly appropriate since we are in a time of crisis in our country now in more ways than are probably even countable. Anybody who thinks they’re “in a good spot” in America in 2017 probably isn’t paying attention, to paraphrase the bumper sticker that ran about around the time of G.W. that “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”
Still, I don’t think anybody would deny that we still hear bad music fairly often, hence making “good music” a logically definable entity, still, by basic law of opposites. I was sitting around the pad earlier today scrolling through a sort-of crazy gamut of listening material including Battles’ album Gloss Drop, Parliament, James Brown and the Jane’s Addiction song “Of Course” and I decided: da**, it’s just not that easy to BEGIN a song — harder nowadays than ever (so many bands resort to that horrible drone-in crescendo thing). Parliament, I decided, is just really bad, but as we all know James Brown rocks it like the cum-bay-yah, and “Make it Funky” opens with a droll little conversation sound bite, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” with a tempo-askance horn wail. With this National album I just NEEDED a good opening five seconds or my opinion of it was gonna drastically ebb and sure enough I got it — it’s a crescendo lead-in but it’s full of RHYTHM which, on my second listen, you know really reminded me of the opening phrases of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, “Second Hand News.” What really steals the show on “Nobody Else Will Be There,” though, is how perfectly damaged Berninger’s voice rings — it’s malady-ridden both on a physical level, perhaps from numerous studio takes, and also on an emotional level, as he is per general National game plan seeking a sort of sanctuary, a friend’s apartment where, literally, “nobody else will be there.”
“Day I Die” treads along with unassuming, poker-faced pomp more VINTAGE NATIONAL than anything The National has done to date, but “Walk it Back” is groundbreaking right from the start — a hard, staccato synth [1] struts almost silently to create a tense groove, the sort of thing Grizzly Bear WOULD be doing if not for that they’d already pioneered such an exact thing on another song. Most bands would have placed such a spare, stark number toward the end of the album, so credit Berninger and the boys with some precociousness in their sequencing here. “Born to Beg” is absolutely beautiful (“I was born to beg for you”), with more of that hard synth, and also gives me the idea that one day this band will devise the perfect sound guaranteed to put you to sleep when you hear it, like how Nirvana tried to hit the perfect amp tone that would make you befoul your britches, upon taking it in. Da**, and we’re still on side A here!
The incredibly lulling effects of this album make me think that it’s definitely not morning music, the way High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me were. “Turtleneck” begins with brash guitar, by The National’s standards, Matt Berninger’s voice adopting a certain Eddie Vedder-like machismo, but the shocker of this song is that it’s actually a satire of a turtleneck commercial, something that, though my left brain tells me has probably been done before many times, somehow still comes across as vital, and what’s more, rejuvenating to the spirits of us American consumers. Now, I’m going to say something that might pi** some people off, and as any reader of this site knows I generally hate vinyl [2]: the turntable ruins Sleep Well Beast, in specific regards to “Turtleneck,” the first record’s final song and so apparently has to end abruptly. The ideal length for this bluesy cooker full of sassy guitar would be about six minutes and 45 seconds. For The National to halt it at exactly three isn’t exactly SHOCKING to me [3], I must admit, but of all the spineless vinyl catering this instance engrages me the most, because “Turtleneck” is one of the best new songs of this entire year up there with The Dirty Nil’s “Hate is a Stone,” The Shins’ “Cherry Hearts” and Liars’ “Cred Woes.” For the record, THIS type of thing, this egregious length truncation, is what those loud mouths are talking about when they treat being a “hipster” as if it’s akin to like breaking out in leprosy or something.
“Empire Line” is unremarkable but vaguely gorgeous, joining “I’ll Still Destroy You” in the first of the National tracks to feature drum machine. The result isn’t like Amnesiac, necessarily: think a rock band successfully approximating Mouse on Mars, in this case equally gorgeously gentle to the band’s general m.o. and thereby immediately canonical. What will really stand out at this and all points, though, at least upon a superficial listen to Sleep Well Beast, is Matt Berninger’s almost preternatural ability to continually, to always evade emotional stasis, despite his voice’s apparent textural flatness. In regards to Sleep Well Beast being perhaps the best full-band effort The National has ever orchestrated, he’s got this great ability to always converse WITH the music, as if, similar to an account given by Iggy Pop in the great documentary film Gimme Danger, these people he’s making music with truly are his favorite human beings on Earth.
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[1] I apologize: I was looking for information on what kind of synth that is but I literally found like six articles about Karl Rove, so you might say I got a bit irked. Genius.com should really include instrumentation on their pages for individual songs.
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[2] Just to clarify, I don’t actually HATE the analog listening format; in fact I have a lot of respect for it. I had a da** near religious experience one time listening to Neil Young’s “Long May You Run” on a turntable one time. But let’s ask the godfather of grunge himself, shall we: even he says that this recent vinyl craze is a crock of sh**. What I point to as the most disheartening aspect is that the industry, or its consumers, as it were, are so arrogant that no attempt is even being made to improve the technology of the device: to alleviate people of the task of flipping over that unwieldy object after 20 minutes, or to make them smaller and more portable, to initiate the ability to skip songs, or anything like that. But then, I am a ’90s kid. Digital music spawned a multi-million dollar Napster lawsuit. Boy, it must have really sounded like dirt!
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[3] Ironically, though, despite what is well touted as a low tolerance for waiting around for stuff, New Yorkers do have a decent taste for jam music, with Lee Ronaldo being a well-known Deadhead, Phish having just done four nights at the Garden and one of Zappa’s high-profile live installments being Zappa in New York.

 

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