Four years! I repeat. Four years!
It may not seem like a long time in the grand scheme of things but in this age of musical mass consumption and disposal, it feels almost the equivalent of a decade or more. And that’s how long we’ve had to wait since the last The National record for new material. It was interminable. Bordering on indefinite hiatus. Luckily for us, they made our wait worth the while.
I got into The National with 2007’s “The boxer” and to my ears, the Cincinnati five-piece have, with each successive album, built upon their last, creating new worlds with their music while remaining recognizable and true to their sound. And with “Sleep well beast”, now their seventh record and third since “The boxer”, the critics are falling over themselves yet again with how experimental this record is and how the band has reinvented themselves… again.
I’m not sure about the reinvention bit but it is a fantastic record. It is dark and ambient and rich with layers of sound and Matt Berninger’s baritone. It was this last that was the cause for many early comparisons to Joy Division but I don’t think that anyone would go there now. This music is warmer and livelier, despite its inherent sombre tone, not at all like the claustrophobia imbued in early post-punk. “Sleep well beast” is an album for noise cancelling ear phones set at high volume, like much of The National’s work, and it’s also the sound of the band pushing themselves to the limits on every track.
Okay. Enough of my fan boy blatherings. Have a listen to my three picks for you and let me know what you think.
“Carin at the liquor store”: The piano work at the beginning suggests a conversation walked in upon halfway through, a song that has always been there but only just discovered now. The reverb melts in at some point in the song, putting Berninger out on some higher plane, while he sings about his wife, Carin, and finding the body of a long dead writer in the same breath. A love song unlike one I’ve ever heard. And yet, oh so beautiful.
“The system only dreams in total darkness”: Maybe it’s the title or maybe the lyrical themes but this tune feels like Pink Floyd at the height of their powers, listening to it, though, you might call me crazy. It’s got a jaunty beat, Matt Berninger’s rich vocals, and is nowhere near as long a tune as Floyd would have it. Still, “The system” is a dark machine with plenty of intricate inner workings that make it go and only become apparent with close observation. Great pop song too.
“Day I die”: Track two is killer. A manic beat and an ecstatic guitar scream that pushes things even further and faster than I’m sure they are meant to be. The vocals, too, are in a rush, as if Berninger has to get the message across in the limited time he has. But this is a National song, so the message is somewhat blurred by the imagery and the stream of consciousness delivery. If I had to guess, though, I’d say it has more to do with living than dying, and living without hesitation or regret. So don’t delay, get up and dance with The National. You won’t regret it.
For the rest of the albums in this list, check out my Best Albums page here.