‘Sleep Well Beast’ reawakens dormant anxiety

The National’s return is sharp and subtle

ae-SleepWellBeast-Courtesy4AD

The National's newest album mimics a lovers' quarrel from start to finish.

Courtesy 4 AD | Cavalier Daily

Like most indie rock made by white males, The National’s latest album, “Sleep Well Beast,” is about the struggle to make it in New York City. It’s a loosely-structured and largely fictional trip through a winding path of neuroses, political projections and self-medication that ends at the hallway where it began, bidding the beast to — as the album’s title promises — sleep well. “Sleep Well Beast” is immersive and evocative throughout, but rarely coherent.

“Sleep Well Beast” retains The National’s winning — albeit somewhat sleepy — recipe for indie rock. The suggestive lull of frontman Matt Berninger’s voice, pianist Aaron Dessner’s subtle, lilting piano voicings, guitarist Bryce Dessner’s atmospheric guitar riffs and drummer Bryan Devendorf’s occasional drum solos all fit together. One needs only to listen to Coldplay’s recent offerings to be reminded of how easily this kind of recipe can be botched. The National, founded three years later than Coldplay, has largely foregone reinvention, exhaustively honing a distinctive style which walks the line between folk-rock and shoegaze. 

The album opens on an acoustic piano line and starts with frontman Matthew Berninger inviting an estranged lover to a stairwell, promising “Nobody Else Will Be There.” Berninger meekly seeks to pull her out of both a crowded Brooklyn party and her “shell,” and the remainder of the album takes place during the same conversation in the same hallway, as the two drink gin from teacups.

“Sleep Well Beast” mimics a lovers’ quarrel from start to finish. Berninger tries to express an acutely felt anxiety in 10 to 15 ways, jumping to unrelated themes while relying on a self-referential language to which only the lovers truly have full access. Like a lover’s quarrel, the argument doesn’t follow chronologically or thematically, but rather traces broader emotional contours while travelling along the hazy line of Berninger’s free association. 

The album sucks listeners in to Berninger’s vivid realization of a dimly lit Brooklyn reminiscent of John Cheever’s menacing suburbia — a parallel Berninger draws in “Carin At The Liquor Store.” Though the album deals with political themes, it doesn’t supply a cogent line of protest. While the Trump era provides an Orwellian stormcloud over Matt Berninger’s imagination and an absurdist backdrop of postmodern truth, the band doesn’t really respond. 

The concept of a protest song, from “We Shall Overcome” to U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” forces listeners to look past their own identities to broader human rights issues. The National, on the other hand, turns the lense inward, examining Berninger’s own feelings of paranoia and isolation established by the Trump presidency. Berninger’s vision of politics is filled with deliria such as, “The poor, they leave their cellphones in the bathrooms of the rich / And when they try to turn them off everything they switch to / Is just another man in shitty suits, everybody's cheering for.” But, behind the absurdity of politics looms the Radiohead-esque “System,” a track which Berninger, “cannot explain any other way” than that it “sleeps in total darkness.” 

“Stick to what you know,” is always good songwriting advice but, in Berninger’s case, this doesn’t amount to much. Plagued by self-doubt and fears of an empire of alternate reality, his lyrics often read like the script for an especially neurotic Woody Allen protagonist. The album, however, doesn’t leave Berninger as clueless as it starts. To balance its self-doubt and paranoia, “Sleep Well Beast” presents a few moments of lucid clarity. One of the standout passages is found in “Born To Beg” — “New York is older / And changing its skin again / It dies every ten year / And then it begins again.” 

By the album’s end, the lover’s quarrel is over, with Berninger resolved to “keep you in love with me for a while.” The couple settles into caricatures they have created for one another, realizing that the guilty party is outside of their control, bidding one another to “Sleep Well Beast” and perhaps setting the beast of Berninger’s anxiety to sleep as well. 

“Sleep Well Beast” is quite a trip. Though cryptic throughout, it’s the kind of album listeners can’t get out of their heads. It’s an album capturing the bittersweet moments in the life of a relationship in ways few bands can hope to achieve. By the album’s resolution, the end feels more like a beginning — an invitation to reawaken the beast during a cold, dark corner of the night.

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