'Their most accomplished work yet'
Ethan Weatherby

14:57 6th September 2017

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Art that warns of how love gives and how it ruins is as old as anyone can remember, but no less vital for it. The National return for their seventh album with something pensive and beautiful that refuses to bite its tongue, going to dark places to find a light. On the cusp of major success, the Ohio natives decided to turn heel on the triumphant nervy anthems of 'High Violet' and 'Trouble Will Find Me' and create something “weird, math-y, electronic-y.” It could signify them gripping the doorframe, reluctant to face the major leagues. It’s classic behaviour from frontman Matt Berninger whose protagonist, 18-years deep, continues to be a brooding, self-medicating wreck, prone to fight-or-flight responses. The National are what you get when you indulge the fantasy of Leonard Cohen fronting The Smiths, a study in neurosis and magnetically sad rock music. The shine of those who once outstripped them is fading - Interpol are moving towards a comfortable legacy position and Arcade Fire tying their own noose with Everything Now - meaning there’s no one left in alt-rock to stand between the National and, say, Radiohead.

Having played under Foo Fighters at Glastonbury this year, the brilliantly propulsive ‘Day I Die’ feels tailormade for seizing the throne. Built on familiar ground, it’ll do little to shift a common dismissal of the National as sad-dads jamming at a wake, but it’s the perfection of the stadium killer they’ve been tinkering with for over a decade. Fresher is the twitchy psychedelic groove of lead single ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’, optimistic and punching high.

Time spent between albums as disciples of the Grateful Dead founder Bob Weir seems to have widened their palette, causing the Dessner twins’ guitars to spark and bloom with new life. Adoption of the math-y electronics goes hand-in-hand with a departure from rigid notions of what kind of song The National should be making. They’re giving ideas and melodies the room to expand, such as the gorgeous six-minute sprawl of ‘Walk It Back’, humming with modulated muscle. Not every punch lands, with the experimental impulses of the title track never quite materialising.

Change may be rife, however comparisons to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have never been more on the money. Midpoint ‘Turtleneck’ is a violent separation from the record’s heavy introspection, car-jacking the Australian’s ‘Get Ready For Love’ and crashing it through gardens and fences in the leafy Hamptons. ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’ leans heavily on The Boatman’s Call for one of The National’s greatest ballads, about devoting oneself to love to the point of self-destruction.

At heart, the record is a strange voyeur for the past. Berninger seems to be trying to reconnect with moments that defined his character and relationships, wondering how they got so far away. The lightweight yet charming ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ is his personal ‘Lost In Translation’ for New York, stumbling for meaning under a Valium-daze: “The more level they have me/The more I can’t stand me.” The bulk of the record is about marriages collapsing, oddly co-written by Berninger and his wife, the aforementioned Carin. Together they explore the most desolate areas of matrimony as a hypothetical scenario, to avoid falling into them themselves. Considering the album’s global audience, it sounds like couple’s therapy for high-functioning sociopaths, but each to their own, and it gives a new clarity to Berninger’s traditionally dense lyrics.

Spliced in the middle of ‘Walk It Back’ is Karl Rove’s infamous ‘Reality-based Community’ quote, which ponders the power we have to create narratives and truths and how they fit in the world – or if it’s all just in our heads sometimes. Sleep Well Beast is the place where the walls between the National’s past demons and their anxiety for the future have violently fractured, provoking It’s a lesson that no matter how dark it can get down there, all our monsters can be put to bed. 

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Photo: Press