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Those US art-rockers The National are back with the darkly melancholic™ album Sleep Well Beast – a record ostensibly about marital dissolution. With in, the mercurial Matt Berninger could have delivered his LEMONADE. The frontman dramatises discord with his wife, writer Carin Besser, while contemplating that crisis of toxicity in Donald Trump’s USA.
Somewhat like Beyoncé Knowles’ canny confessional, Sleep Well Beast is (possibly) a conceit: Berninger remains married to Besser and she’s even co-penned songs. Still, the album is no less resonant in what it reveals about relationship rift and ruin. Berninger realises that resentment is initially manifested in mundane disengagement. However, Sleep Well Beast ultimately functions as a brutal, albeit very public, therapy session. Berninger is confronting his own dread. Indeed, Sleep Well Beast is about emotional truths, rather than autobiography. There is no narrative arc. And, if the album has a concept, it’s ambivalence itself.
The National – Berninger is joined by prodigious multi-instrumentalist twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner, bassist Scott Devendorf and his drummer brother Bryan – sound reinvigorated after 2013’s lauded yet creatively conservative Trouble Will Find Me. Between albums, the various members threw themselves into eclectic – and, crucially, collaborative – side-projects. Berninger has suggested that, when he reconnected with The National’s chief composers the Dessners, they finally allowed each other greater artistic space and liberty.
The National put the ‘art’ into America’s heartland rock with their classic work 2007’s Boxer (and its follow-up High Violet). Their seventh album, Sleep Well Beast, is again layered. The sumptuous arrangements mirror Bryce’s soundtrack forays. But, at different points, the five rock out more and, intriguingly, Sleep Well Beast is The National’s grooviest record, the band embracing synthesisers, drum machines and programming. Sonically, they’ve disrupted their peak urban Americana. The most latent material on Sleep Well Beast evokes trip-hop – Berninger’s interiority complemented by the band’s atmospherics.
The Dessners were immersed in electronic experimentation last year when, randomly, they liaised with German techno-types Mouse On Mars in Berlin and, as a result, Sleep Well Beast opens with what might pass as Kompakt-brand micro-house in ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ – the baritone Berninger singing restrainedly over piano and strings accompanied by glitches ‘n’ twitches. Still, the album is predominantly quiet alt-ballads, ‘Day I Die’ being amongst the most uptempo – and gritty – of songs. Here, The National channel ’80s Scottish bands – think Big Country with their guitar bursts and Fiction Factory’s pop brittleness.
Some tracks are politically-charged. Though associated with the hipster Brooklyn, The National’s bandmates all hail from Cincinnati, Ohio – the centre of America’s industrial decay and disillusionment and, consequently, Trump’s heartland. The album’s melodious lead single, ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’, another ’80s paean, is an obvious hit. The Killers gotta be coveting that chorus – and Aaron’s guitar rip is surely the stuff of teen bedroom imitations. In the album’s overt protest song ‘Turtleneck’, Berninger mocks Trump (“just another man, in shitty suits, everybody’s cheering for/This must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for”). It’s raucous, anarchic (post-)punk in the tradition of Nick Cave’s The Birthday Party. Berninger’s vocal is almost screamo. Almost.
The subliminally angsty ‘Empire Line’ is a lyrical throwback to Boxer‘s ‘Fake Empire’ – The National’s ironic George W Bush-era, anti-nationalist anthem that presaged the repurposing of the word ‘fake’ in cultural discourse. (It also referenced figurative somnolence – and, spookily, lemonade.) Sleep Well Beast closes with the titular track, a huge Tricky-esque beat symphony.
Sleep Well Beast thematises struggle and surrender. But, in the end, it’s redemptive and restorative. Peering into the sleepy hollow, and the dystopian abyss, Berninger sees better – not bestial – days. Until then, we are all dancing in the dark.