17 September 2017
The National - Sleep Well Beast
It seems like it has been a really long time since the release of Trouble Will Fine Me by The National (our review cleverly linked here), but it has only been just four years since that fine record came out. Since that record was released, the National have released a documentary film (Mistaken for Strangers), they have had various side project and have appeared to have returned with their batteries refreshed and the fruits of that labour have been released as Sleep Well Beast, their seventh studio album. I have taken a little longer to do my review as I wanted to give it time to sink in, to absorb it. I read a few reviews, including one by one of my colleagues over at Bearded Gentlemen Music (link to that review here), which makes the comparison between them and Radiohead. I will go on about that one a bit at the end of the review. Now, things have changed in the four years since they released Trouble…, how will we find the band?
01 – Nobody Else Will Be There
With the predictability of a Winter Solace, The National start off this album with the minimalist “Nobody Else Will Be There”, a song about love, distance and the hope of a connection. It is a gentle beast, one which takes a while to sink in and even longer to distinguish what is going on. The sparse nature of the song makes its hard to love, but it is a song with a broken charm that eventually starts to make sense. But it is an empty opening to Sleep Well Beast, this does not bode well for the rest of the album.
02 – Day I Die
We find The National in a reflective mood, considering the future and wondering what it all holds for them, where they are going to be when Death comes knocking. It is a familiar number from them, similar in structure to “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and whilst it has a sense of excitement to the song, it is not a gripping number and it is cursed with a lethargic malaise.
03 – Walk It Back
A slow build about trying to piece together what is happening and what is going on, with a sense of confusion and the mourning for the lost moments. This song is a slow builder that actually makes a lot more sense the more you listen to it, but it is a difficult one and at times it seems as if it is not worth the effort. You do get your rewards eventually with this song if your persevere with it, but it is a stubborn little bugger.
04 – The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is a cryptic number, one which is so open to interpretation that it feels as wide of the open skies of the desert. It is a busy number (by The National’s own standards) and it is a very catchy song, but there is still something that is not settling right on this one, something that gives it a disengaged feeling. It might just be me, but for a lively song it feels a bit hollow.
05 – Born to Beg
The lethargic nature of the band is on display here, “Born to Beg” is a song about begging for love and how it is in the nature of the person to follow their lover and do anything for them. It starts off quietly, builds and then suddenly there are two different songs playing at the same time and the original fades into the void. It is a messy song, but it is also one that gains my interest, one that makes a lot more sense than a few of the other tracks on here.
06 – Turtle Neck
Now this is more like it, a song that feels as if the band have turned up. It has a punk ethic to the tune, one with a ferial nature and a bite to the music as well. It is out of keeping with what they usually do, but it is also one that makes so much sense when compared to the rest of the album. It is angry, it is bitter and it is full of bile – where have this version of the band been hiding?
07 – Empire Line
“Empire Line” is a song which uses the distance of a commuter journey to compare the strained feelings of a relationship that is in danger of falling apart, one that is sadly not the natural follow on the wonder “Fake Empire” from Boxer. It is another song which I would refer to as a builder, it is not easily accessible and it does take its time to reveal itself. But this one is worth the wait and it does have a beautiful soul, even if it is a song with a damaged narrative at its core.
08 – I’ll Still Destroy You
With moments of Zappa strangeness, Bloc Party Electronic Indie and no sense of clarity, “I’ll Still Destroy You” is a strange number that feels as if it is all over the place. It never really sinks together and I have a feeling that you would need to be in a specific place/mood for this one to correlate into something wondrous. Sadly, for me it is just as strange now as it was when I first started listening to it, which is such a shame . I usually love strange music, but this one really does not have the consistency to sustain my interest.
09 – Guilty Party
With a sense of remorse, The National are really delving into the Electronica side on “Guilty Party”, mixing the drum machine, the strings and sparse guitar elements all being micromanaged to within an inch of its life. It is a strange one, but it is also one where ambition has been met by the performance as well. It feels natural and fluid, there is a moment that it feels as if it is in danger of falling apart, but it stays together and it is a wonderful moment on this record.
10 – Carin At the Liquor Store
It seems as if this album is turning a corner as it approaches the bitter end, with “Carin At the Liquor Store” adding more miserable quality to this record. It is a song which has regret at its very core, with pain and misery the only companions during this decent into a personal hell. It does not have more in the way of positives in the emotional department, but it does have a hook that sinks in deep and it is another track which is worthy of their name.
11 – Dark Side of the Gym
The penultimate song of this album is a tale of obsession, a doomed relationship and the need to keep someone close & distant at the same time. The music on this one is a little weak, it feels secondary to the lyrics and as if they have been forced together instead of growing together organically. It is a track which I am still stuck on the fence, it depends on the mood if it appeals or not, so the jury is still out on this one.
12 – Sleep Well Beast
The National bring this album to a close with the title track and I can sort of see the Radiohead comparison, the music is bizarre and sounds strange when compared to normal ears. However, I am also hearing other artists, such as the brilliant Thomas Truax and some of the better moments of Bloc Party. It is a sparse affair overall and it ends the album on a bit of a confusing note, but it is not without interest. At the end of the day, this one has a sense of intrigue about it and it has more to offer than other pieces on Sleep Well Beast.
I think it might just be me, but I am not seeing the genius that everyone else is with this album. If anything, it is the poorest album that The National have released. It feels like it is trying to be inviting and it is wanting to help you through the night, but there is something unlovable about it and the feeling of being kept at arms distance that never really dissipates. This is a shame as I cannot fault the performance, they are good musicians and that has not changed with this record. But that is the only way I can think of describing the feeling that this album gives me is this, the sense of darkest and strange yearning that is at the core of this record. For it, it is akin to this – You see pictures of people having a great time, looking so friendly and they are living it large, but there is one person in the background that is being ignored. You are that person and whilst you are there at this party, it is not really happening for you and that is Sleep Well Beast in a nutshell for me. Also, the comparison to Radiohead does not sit well for me by my colleague from Bearded Gentlemen Music (no offense meant on that one), maybe that is because I have not always loved them either. For me, the only way to compare them to Radiohead is that they have become a band that lots of people love, but they are also an act that leave a lot of people cold. If anything, I find them more akin to Bloc Party on this record than Radiohead – they are trying something and it feels unnatural and forced at times. Overall though, this is an album which is played well with a few moments of brilliance, but it is as warm and welcoming as an Antarctic winter walk, I think the beast must stayed asleep on this one.
6 out of ten – Now, I see where you were going, but it is not quite there.
Top track – Guilty Party
You can purchase Sleep Well Beast on Amazon here.
You can visit The National website here.
You can follow the activities of The National on Facebook here.
You can stream Sleep Well Beast on Spotify here.
You can stream Sleep Well Beast on Deezer.
You can stream Sleep Well Beast on Tidal.
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