By Andrew Vela
Artist: The National
Album: Sleep Well Beast
Release Date: September 8, 2017
It is coming close to five years since Trouble Will Find Me was released by The National. That trouble has finally caught up to them in their most recent release, Sleep Well Beast. Their latest perfection and episode, and it is much an episode as you would refer to a mental breakdown, is Matt Berninger’s way of dealing with life. The National does indie in the best way. Just imagine a film about a kid struggling to find his purpose in life and dealing with it in a way that society doesn’t see fit–this album would be the soundtrack to that film. His lyrics aren’t about moving on, they are about being stuck in place and dealing. This album doesn’t sugarcoat life and its struggles. It tells you how to deal with the present moment and maybe that is how you can move on from anything that holds you back. Maybe that is part of what won them their first Grammy award for Best Alternative Music Album. The sound of The National has developed in a way that is captivating and bittersweet. Their songs carry much more piano as well as being hit with synthesizers and of course, Berninger’s wonderful melancholy voice.
Their opening track, “Nobody Else Will Be There,” is the best representation of the struggle, loneliness, and longing for any kind of relationship that is portrayed in their music. The track opens with calm drum patches from a synthesizer, followed by a subtle piano. In this opening, Berninger talks about meeting with his significant other in their decaying relationship, “in a stairwell for a glass of gin.” Let’s face it, The National wouldn’t be The National if Berninger didn’t talk about downing alcohol.
The next track even more exemplifies what encompasses this band’s motive. “Day I Die” opens with more synthesizers and passionate drums that sound like intense emotions are about to be thrown out on the floor. Listening on, that is exactly what happens. Their lead guitarist, Bryce Dessner, opens the track with high harmonics then suddenly stops. Dessner continues this throughout the track almost symbolizing another episode of lyrics Berninger is having. Once he does, Berninger comes in, saying to his lost love, “I don’t need you, besides I barely ever see you anymore and when I do you’re only halfway there.”
The drums and guitar in this track accompany the lyrics in a way that feels like the story is coming to an end. Or when you read any book or watch a movie and realize Mordor is finally destroyed and Aragorn is finally king. There is a moment in this song where all the instruments are shining bright and they almost seem joyous. But then the song goes back to its distressed lyrics and Berninger is back to not being able to handle his emotions, especially with his loved one. He talks about him and his love getting high in order to talk about how they really feel since they don’t have the emotional capacity to do so otherwise. In result, Berninger questions over and over in this song, “the day I die where will we be?”
Take the rest of the album for your own interpretation. This album treads deeply into all waters and establishes emotional markers throughout. Fans of lyricist such as Elliot Smith or bands such as Interpol and more will find The National to their liking.