The National – Sleep Well Beast – Album Review by Killian Laher
Four years since Trouble Will Find Me represents the longest gap between National albums for Matt Berninger and co. The band have torn themselves away from their various side projects to return with a seventh album. Despite the presence of an electronic influence, the key ingredients of their appeal are present, well crafted, world weary indie rock songs, anchored by Berninger’s instantly recognisable, slightly morose voice.
It opens with the brooding, autumnal piano chords of Nobody Else Will Be There, before the first standout, the uptempo rock anthem Day I Die. This is one of several nervous, pacy tracks which give the lie to the idea that the band have grown ‘comfortable’. It’s a bit like Lemonworld given an injection of pace, with Berninger sounding a lot like Dave Gahan here. The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness will see the band cling on to their crown as kings of bruised indie rock. It’s built around a slightly jarring guitar part that gets worked into an anthem. Narky rocker Turtleneck harks back to early songs such as Slipping Husband, it’s an almost confrontational song dripping with attitude.
Walk It Back wears the aforementioned electronic influence on its sleeve, with highly programmed music, almost sounding like Leonard Cohen crossed with Eel’s.
There’s plenty of gentler material present here, such as Born to Beg, a relatively simple, plaintive ballad, where Berninger sings “I was born to beg for you” over piano and a rising choir.
At times the band are in cruise control such as the electronic-tinged ballads Empire Line and downbeat New Order of Guilty Party, and the almost David Sylvian like, clattering I’ll Still Destroy You doesn’t really work.
But they do what they do well, and , as often with The National, the final tracks of the album are where the emotional heart lies. Well some of it anyway. Pretty piano ballad Carin at the Liquor Store is clearly a personal song about Berninger’s wife, while the strangely-titled Dark Side of the Gym distils the stripped-down essence of early Cowboy Junkies to deliver a gorgeous, very 21st century love plea (“I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while”), before rounding off with a classical flourish. The title track is one of the odder moments, an unsettling close to the album, Berninger’s voice reduced to the dullest of croaks over eerie, glitchy electronica. It’s a leftfield move for them, not an unqualified success but one with a degree of promise.
In truth, there isn’t a lot you won’t have heard from The National before, and the album lacks a real killer standout track. Are they back to save music? Not quite. But in the music scene of 2017 it’s good to have them around.
1. Nobody Else Will Be There
2. Day I Die
3. Walk It Back
4. The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness
5. Born to Beg
7. Empire Line
8. I’ll Still Destroy You
9. Guilty Party
10. Carin at the Liquor Store
11. Dark Side of the Gym
12. Sleep Well Beast
Day I Die