The National: Love and Politics Take Center Stage on Dark New Album ‘Sleep Well Beast’
The National have been hard at work over the past couple years crafting yet another shadowy, thematic record. “Sleep Well Beast,” set for release on Sept. 8, finds singer Matt Berninger and company continuing their leap into the darkness of the things that surround them. This “strange record,” as Berninger called it in an interview with Rolling Stone last October, is filled with insights into politics, marriage and the band members’ relationships with one another. It looks both inward on an intimate psyche and outward onto the vast spectrum of power and influence — frenzied thoughts tamped down with a melancholic mood.
“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is the record’s lead single and the one that shot to the top of Billboard’s adult alternative chart, marking the first number one commercial single for the band. Angelic tones lead to a fuzzy-guitar and Berninger’s signature baritone reminding listeners of the strange times we live in – namely the strange political times. The National’s overtly political ideologies have found themselves on almost everything the band has written over the years. While this album isn’t specifically themed around the issue, much of the music, including this single, are regarding politics. “We’re in a different kind of thing now” he sings during the chorus in an artistically vague, yet somehow very obvious description of our current political climate. For those unaware, Berninger is a self-described liberal and verdant Clinton and Obama supporter.
Contrasting politics with persona, the other half of the record is deeply intimate. It’s no secret the intricacies and struggles of relationships in general, but when digging even deeper into marriages specifically, the nuances can be overwhelming. This is why Berninger solicited writing help from his wife on “Guilty Party.” Carin Besser, Berninger’s wife, has also contributed on tracks from 2007’s “Boxer” as well as directing one of the band’s music videos and even providing backup vocals at one point. “I know it’s not working/I’m no holiday/It’s nobody’s fault/No guilty party,” croons Berninger on the inner-workings of spousal thoughts. Electronics push this tune into a melodic, Radiohead-esque stream of poesy about the strange awareness that inevitably comes along with long-term relationships. He once again touches on his marriage with the acoustic piano-lead “Carin at the Liquor Store.” Named after his wife, this track finds Berninger filled with self-doubt, certain his wife will one day choose to move on. “I wasn’t a catch, I wasn’t a keeper,” he sings leading to the bitter chorus, “So blame it on me/I really don’t care/It’s a foregone conclusion.”
Sonically speaking, the cinematic nature of The National has been steadily creeping in over the years and with “Beast” it becomes even more apparent. Guitarist Bryce Dessner was recruited last year to add instrumentation to the Grammy Award nominated score for “The Revenant.” This, mixed with the aging mentalities and even darker themes on the new record, have lent to the notably growing cinematic quality of the new album. “Walk it Back” projects moody, vintage synths and incomplete drum beats onto a fictional rainy window pain; “Born to Beg” is a somber love-song fit for an equally somber love-film; the title-track recruits a drum-kit, plus even more electronics, crafting the perfect backdrop for modern-day, on-screen relationship contemplation. “Day I Die” is another noteworthy single, with an accompanying video touting the cinematic pursuance of this long-standing alt-rock band. Taken over the course of a rehearsal in Paris, the video comprises over 5,000 images of the band on stage stitched together using a custom created software. The result is stunning, enough to encourage even the most casual fan to purchase tickets to the upcoming tour.
Now, with a finished seventh-album under their belts, The National have booked their world tour beginning on Sept. 16 in Ireland. The guys will reach the U.K., North America and Europe before closing out the trip with back-to-back nights in Chicago’s Civic Opera House in mid-December.