The National: Sleep Well Beast Review
By Sydney Owens
After never fulfilling the promise of a sister album to Trouble Will Find Me which was released in 2014, The National must have felt a sense of pressure from their anxiously awaiting fans. With the release of their seventh studio album on September 8th, they have been getting a lot of attention due to the album’s political inspirations. On the surface, Sleep Well Beast is about the complex troubles of marital divorce; then if you consider the political metaphors, it becomes a whole new beast. Being at the top of indie-rock, The National knew they had to change their sound without losing all of the mellow-dramaticness and anxiety that fans have thrived on for over 15 years. It’s safe to say that The National have accomplished this and more in their masterpiece Sleep Well Beast.
In several interviews, lead singer Matt Berninger has opened up about the meaning of the title, Sleep Well Beast, and its implicit relation to Trump’s success in the 2016 election. According to The Atlantic, Berninger felt as if the sky looked dimmer in America when the election results were announced. He refers to the election as “trauma” in this interview and claims that the overarching idea of sleep in the album can be thought of as a reaction to trauma.
Speaking on the idea of sleep, the overall sound of this album is different from their previous ones in a peculiar way. From the first song to the last, Sleep Well Beast has a dream-like feel that is simultaneously somber and anxious, with the exceptions of “Turtleneck”, “Day I Die”, and “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” which have more upbeat instrumentals and melodies.
It’s clear that The National have been experimenting with new sounds for this album. Droning, electronic drum beats are present in almost every song, adding to that dream-like feel. These beats are especially apparent in two of the album’s greatest highlights “Guilty Party” and “Sleep Well Beast”. However, don’t think that they’ve let go of their raw instrumental sounds from the past. With soft piano and warm guitar riffs, the album still has that instrumental creativity from the Dessner and Devendorf brothers that fans enjoy. The National have a gift of being able to take simple sounds and make them intricately beautiful in a unique way.
In addition to typical rock instruments and electronic drum beats, songs like “Empire Line” and “I’ll Still Destroy You” include fluttering mallet percussion sounds that lighten the mood momentarily. Violins can be heard in the second half of the opening track, “Nobody Else Will Be There”, as well as in a couple of other songs. The strings create a desperate feeling that one might get going through a divorce (or a difficult election).
Berninger, arguably one of the best lyricists in the business right now, seems to be going for more direct lyrics in this album than he has in past albums. This is the only complaint of Sleep Well Beast. Berninger’s previous lyrics have been quirky and hard to decipher, leaving some room for the imagination of the listener.
With that being said, however, the lyrics of Sleep Well Beast are phenomenal in different ways. For example, “Turtleneck” calls out Trump for his “shitty suits” and immature Twitter correspondences (ouch). He also shouts “Light the water, check for lead” referring to the Flint, MI water crisis that has been a problem for way too long. It’s understandable why this track has a completely different feel to it, as if the band is letting off some politically charged steam. Berninger strains his voice and sounds desperately angry, reminding fans of songs like “Abel” or “Mr. November” with the latter also being politically inspired.
Even after what many called the peak of their career, The National are continuing to adapt and adjust their sound. Sleep Well Beast should only heighten their popularity and maybe even send a message to Washington. Concerning long-time fans of The National, however, Sleep Well Beast may receive the sister album that Trouble Will Find Me never got. One can only hope that this dream will continue and maybe even find some light at the end of this dark tunnel.