Monday, October 23, 2017

Album Review: The National - Sleep Well Beast (2017)

I have to admit, I feared the worst. There had been a couple of fairly recent unsettling developments. Signs or little hints that we'd already seen and heard the best of The National. That, as a band, they were yesterday's men, condemned to merely go through the motions until they collectively reached the inevitable bitter end. On account of having nothing better to do. Or at least, having nothing better to offer us.

The band's previous full-length release, the (in retrospect) mostly watercolour Trouble Will Find Me (2013), was enjoyable enough at first, but it grew stale relatively quickly, and it seldom warrants a mention whenever The National’s very best work is being discussed. That album was followed by a couple of rather ordinary hit-and-miss standalone releases, and when I saw the band's name included as a headliner on this summer's (local) winery circuit, well, that would usually amount to something akin to the kiss of death. The sort of gig a band struggling to retain any degree of relevance might take. And, gasp, the sort of gig frequented by nostalgia act devotees only.

But I need not have been too concerned. As it turns out, Sleep Well Beast was/is a lovely surprise, and it presents The National right back at the top of its game, with the album showcasing all of the constituent parts that formed a truly magnificent whole on the band's previous high watermark releases – on key albums like The Boxer (2007), and High Violet (2010). Obviously, we'll have to see how it ages before we'll know where it will ultimately sit within the wider pantheon of the band's near two-decade long career, but a few months on since its release, the seventh National album feels like a genuine keeper.

I know nothing of lyricist and vocalist Matt Berninger’s past or current relationship status, but it’s not difficult to conclude that someone, somewhere along the way, has broken his heart, quite badly, and much of Sleep Well Beast – interludes of barely disguised political commentary aside – deals with heartbreak and an implied acceptance that love never ends well. And given that love can only ever end in break-up, or death, then that last part is hard to argue with.

There’s an intimacy and an understated beauty about the arrangement and production, and a sense of melodrama lurks beneath, or within, almost every track. A certain tension that the unfiltered fragility of Berninger’s seductive baritone frequently brings right to the front and centre.

With a set of a dozen high calibre songs, strong melodies, and music that is rich in depth, texture, and variety, Sleep Well Beast offers up a far wider stylistic palette than we found on Trouble Will Find Me. From gentle keys-based tunes (‘Born To Beg’, ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’) to full-blown psychedelia (‘Turtleneck’), and a little bit of most things in between.

In simple terms, as returns to form go, this effort has to be considered one of 2017’s best statements of intent. It would seem any thoughts of the band’s impending demise are premature, to say the least, and clearly The National aren’t quite ready to join the greybeards of the nostalgia circuit quite just yet.

Album highlights include the first couple of singles, ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’, which has grown steadily in stature since its initial low-key unveiling months ago, and ‘Guilty Party’ (clip below), which works as a gentle tearjerker, a heartfelt break-up post-mortem. Plus, ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’, ‘Day I Die’, and ‘I'll Still Destroy You’.

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