The National: Sleep Well Beast

 

The National
Sleep Well Beast
(4AD)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Many of the characters embodied by Matt Berninger on The National’s latest album seem to be going through the motions, men who have reached a point of stagnation in their respective lives even as the people they cherish the most naturally proceed or recede away from them. The band that he fronts refuses to get caught in the same trap on Sleep Well Beast, forging bold new ground without losing their identity, which, for a band as established as this one, is nothing short of miraculous.

It’s been four years since The National last came forth from the studio with Trouble Will Find Me, a typically engrossing collection of moody missives from middle-aged purgatory. Had they continued down that road, however, all of the slow builds to cathartic choruses might have started to calcify the band’s sound. Sleep Well Beast goes a far more experimental route, with drum machine twitches and synthesizer pops and buzzes creating a counterintuitive atmosphere in which Berninger’s angst can percolate.

This approach can be subtle at times, like the scrape and thump of a programmed drum beat behind the piano chords of “Nobody Else Will Be There” or the steadily rising computerized bleeps which muscle their way into “Born To Beg.” Elsewhere, the band goes all in with the synthetics, like on the shapeshifting “Walk It Back” or “I’ll Still Destroy You,” which includes dissonant elements and a complete rhythmic breakdown in the middle of the song.

Yet from these unfamiliar settings emerge the kind of spine-tingling instrumental moments for which the band has become known. “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” may sport a title like a Philip Dick short story, but the highlight comes in an instrumental breakdown that’s all sweaty humanity, as embodied by Bryce Dessner’s crackling lead guitar and Bryan Devendorf’s herky-jerky backbeat. As for “I’ll Still Destroy You,” the song blossoms from its robotic shell to reveal one of the band’s most heart-tugging melodies.

Berninger meanwhile knows exactly when to undercut the momentum of the music and when to embrace it. “The Day I Die” effortlessly glides into anthemic U2 territory, but the protagonist moans his way through the thrilling music about the petty annoyances of a long-term relationship. By contrast, his succinct summation of spent romance is perfectly in tune with the open spaces and desolate chord changes of “Guilty Party.” He also remains the master of the one-line refrain: Phrases like “It all catches up to me,” “Can’t you find a way?” and “I was born to beg for you” cut through his gallows humor to reveal the vulnerability at the heart of these songs.

The title track closes out Sleep Well Beast with ominous warnings and sticky regrets, the narrator bemoaning the fact that his “last second bright spot in the distance” is no longer in his field of vision. For most veteran bands, the beast is complacency. The National slays it here and stays on top of the rock world in the process.