By Eli Frank
“Sleep Well Beast,” the National’s seventh studio album and first since 2014’s “Trouble Will Find Me,” marks their twisted yet triumphant return.
Unlike past National records, where I’ve fallen in love on the first listen, their latest record took me countless listens to unravel and appreciate all it has to offer. The songs on Sleep Well Beast take on an electrifying energy in live performances that is absent on the record. In concert, new songs like “Nobody Else Will Be There,” “Carin at the Liquor Store” and “Guilty Party” have swelling horns, dueling guitars and frontman Matt Berninger’s vocals rising to near-yelling levels. Unlike live versions, the moments of punch and conflict on the record are few and far between, a quality that can make the record feel sleepy, while also making the rare eruptions of energy all the more gratifying. “Sleep Well Beast” is defined by its understated qualities, which is both its strong-suit and its downfall.
The first track, “Nobody Else Will Be There,” is a gut-wrencher, with Berninger painstakingly interrogating, “Hey baby, where were you back then / When I needed your help? I thought that if I stuck my neck out / I’d get you out of your shell.” In the leadup to the record’s release, the band played a handful of promotional shows and some soundboard-quality recordings have since surfaced, like one played for Pitchfork in Paris, which was streamed live online. The studio version of “Nobody Else Will Be There” has nowhere near the energy of the song’s live performance, but it ends up more captivating and entrancing on “Sleep Well Beast.” “Born To Beg” is another haunting standout that thrives because of its subdued quality, with Berninger lulling, “I was born to beg for you / I’d cry, crawl / I’d do it all / Teakettle love, I’d do anything.”
The hit single “Day I Die” is more polished and blistering on the album than in concert, with some of the best drumming of Bryan Devendorf’s career and some of Berninger’s catchiest and darkest lyrics. “I don’t need you,” he taunts, before wondering, “The day I die, the day I die / Where will we be?”
Fans of rarities from earlier in the band’s discography that feature Berninger’s screaming, like “Slipping Husband,” “Abel” and “Mr. November,” will be pleased with the bone-shattering shocker “Turtleneck.” In an expression of raw anger recorded after Donald Trump’s election, Berninger yells his prescriptions for managing the anxieties that come with politics: “Keep the weed next to the bed / Light the water, check for lead / Dim the lights a little lower / Hide your backbone, shrug your shoulders” The song is a jarring break from the toned-down nature that defines “Sleep Well Beast.” “Turtleneck” doesn’t fit at all. The juxtaposition of that track with the delicate “Born to Beg,” which immediately precedes it, is the perfect encapsulation of one of the record’s defining themes: finding a way to cope with feeling out of place. “Turtleneck” is the embodiment of Berninger’s lyrical musings on feeling out of place; it’s the escape from a party “in the stairwell … for a glass of gin;” it’s walking “all the way home right now” rather than having “to spend one more second in this place.”
On “Dark Side of the Gym,” Berninger’s anxieties take on the form of a waltz, representing new territory for the band, which they successfully traverse. It’s a beautifully romantic song, stunning in its lyricism and spare instrumentation. “I’m going to keep you in love with me for a while,” Berninger croons, as muddled violins take over.
“I’ll Still Destroy You” is a glimmering masterpiece in a vein similar to much of the band’s previous work, featuring some of Berninger’s best lyrics at their most biting: “Put your heels against the wall / I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you / I’ll still destroy you.” In interviews, Berninger has described that idea of destruction as a fear of passing his worst and most destructive traits and habits onto your children.
That paranoia is echoed on the album’s title track, where Berninger chillingly mutters on repeat, “I’ll still destroy you someday, sleep well, beast. You as well, beast,” until the song erupts with warring instruments, eventually trailing off, leaving listeners reflective and stunned in silence. It’s an utterly perplexing track that serves as one of the most effective and mystifying closer’s in the band’s career. “Sleep Well Beast” is a powerful distillation of the album’s central themes, the musical form of the anxieties that come with marriage, being a parent and living in the time we’re in — anxieties that, in Berninger’s mind, are going to destroy us, unless something changes.