[sic] Magazine

The National – Sleep Well Beast

In many ways, The National are today’s quintessential heartland-rock band. Not, perhaps, consistently in the traditional sense but – as American as the day is long – Sleep Well Beast and its intelligent authors are now both progressive within the genre and, at least with this new album (the Ohio boys’ seventh and first since 2014’s majestic Trouble Will Find Me), also the truest they’ve probably ever been to the movement’s blue-collar roots.

Take “Carin At The Liquor Store” in which ever-mumbling frontman Matt Berninger gently stacks his trademark insistence on to what sounds like manipulated pedal steel. It both hails squarely from The National canon, yet also comes from a curiously otherworldly space, helping to push the envelope on a collection consciously written with little care for risk aversion. Contrast this with “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness”, an ambling affair dominated by a deceptively massive chorus and serene Midwestern soloing, and then contrast it again with the remarkable closing title-track. Presumably the result of the band’s open casting for varied contributors, it’s part electro oddity, part calypso chill (no, really!) and part time-signature screwing skronk all performed, more predictably, in the mutest of shades. It’s a little bit – whisper it – like latter-day Radiohead when most else is more expectedly kinda Tindersticks.

With risk comes reward, so too failure. Sleep Well Beast has its fair share of both (the wintery piano lullabies “Nobody Else Will Be There” and “Born To Beg” simmer pleasingly, a hypnotic synth oscillation doing the damage in the second), and it has plenty that missed the memo entirely, landing the disappointing middle-section in a grey no man’s land that’ll only give ammunition to those that already believe the band to be nought save aural wallpaper.

All National long-players take work of course, but this one does seem longer that its almost hour-long run-time. This is a band that continues to write albums though, artistic endeavours rather than preying on instant gratification. Each of them flows to reveal hidden content via repeated exposure, but even by National standards many of these songs take considerable time to blossom. Blossom the majority just about do though, a series of subtle instrumentation choices and, in places, a full orchestra eventually bubbling through to the conscious often at the expense of guitars – all the pre-release talk of Sleep Well Beast being a “real” rock album somewhat redundant at this point despite the presence of tracks like “Turtleneck” and “Day I Die”, the former an impassioned ripper that proves only that Berninger is better in low registers than when stuck stage-centre and the latter a surprisingly uplifting display of muscle that nevertheless comes across as paint-by-numbers National. “Day I Die”, in particular, does however cast an impressive shadow, but it’s a shadow nonetheless, a shadow of truly great National songs, a sombre précis that can in honesty be applied to Sleep Well Beast as a whole.

Best track: “The System Only Dreams In Darkness”

~Sleep Well Beast is out now via 4AD.~