There’s something sinister swimming around beneath the surface of The National’s seventh album. It’s not the spiders crowding the basement of Matt Berninger’s brain on the New York band’s 2005 song “Secret Meeting”; it isn’t the killers who came calling on 2007’s “Gospel”; and it’s not the swarm of bees who dumped the lead singer in the Midwest on 2010’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio”. Whatever’s skulking around down there is more subtle, more bitter, and more venomous than any demon The National have wrestled before.
You can hear it throughout Sleep Well Beast, the band’s first album since 2013’s warmhearted, radio-ready Trouble Will Find Me. It gasps for air in the background of the synth-heavy “Walk It Back”, gnashes its teeth behind Berninger’s easy, comforting vocal melody on “Dark Side of the Gym”. Whatever it is, this beast, it’s shadowed for the duration of the album, only showing up in stray glints and whispers. But that’s enough to cast a pall on the band, who have stepped in and out of darkness throughout their 18-year career even if they’ve never surrendered their sound to that darkness the way they do now.
After the lush orchestral palette and comparatively optimistic lyrics of Trouble Will Find Me, Sleep Well Beast hits an especially bleak mark. Part of that desolation comes from its heavy reliance on synthesizers, which skulk alongside the band’s standard arsenal of guitars, pianos, and drums played with the dexterity of a mixed martial arts master. “Walk It Back” clicks into being with a staccato synth that belongs more to the world of Depeche Mode, while “I’ll Still Destroy You” is built on a trip-hop beat emanating from a drum machine instead of Bryan Devendorf’s manual assault.
The album’s emotional core hides in a dark place, too, as Berninger’s vocals barely rise above the turbulent world in which he’s set them. He sounds especially defeated here, quieter than ever and prone to fits of self-pity that lack their typical halo of optimism. Berninger’s always sung of the strange distances we chart in order to get closer to other human beings, the snags and potholes that complicate those journeys, but this time he sounds really, truly stuck. He tempts the thought of cheating with old girlfriends on the agitated, glorious “Day I Die”: “I don’t need you, I don’t need you/ Besides, I barely even see you anymore,” he sings as Devendorf buttresses his tantrum with a rolling tom pattern. On “I’ll Still Destroy You”, he nurses the worry that he’s not only an inadequate father, but an actively harmful one: “Put your heels against the wall/ I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you/ I’ll still destroy you.”
Of course, Berninger’s not the only one who’s felt the ground shift beneath him since the 2016 election, and Sleep Well Beast’s biggest moment of catharsis comes when he addresses the gut-dropping absurdity of the past year directly. The cynical, hilarious “Turtleneck” rips open the album’s otherwise muted fabric with white-hot guitars and the kind of frantic screams Berninger hasn’t laid to tape since Alligator’s “Abel”. Written the day after the election last November, “Turtleneck” attacks the present administration in perhaps the most New York City language possible: “Another man in shitty suits everybody’s cheering for/ This must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for/ Oh no, this is so embarrassing.” It’s easy enough to criticize 45’s demeanor, but dragging his outfits? That’s going for blood.
Though Sleep Well Beast primarily takes place within the classical setting of a troubled marriage, it offers a few more hints as to the way geopolitics can weigh on that domestic microcosm. “Walk It Back” includes a sample of two pitched-down voices reading a quote attributed to Karl Rove in October 2004, a month before George W. Bush was elected to his second term. “People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community,” says the first voice. “You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Thirteen years later, it’s a chillingly prescient quote; this is the era of fake news and blatant government propaganda, of explicit attacks on journalists and spin so forceful it’s bound to give you motion sickness.
The Bush-era callback also opens a portal to The National’s 2007 song “Fake Empire”, which was later used by Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign. At the time, the Obama presidency felt like an inevitable corrective to the Bush years, but it also signaled, to some, a hope that things could get better, that this empire we’re living in could dwindle and become a real country really served by its democratically elected government. If the Obama years themselves, as riddled by war as ever, didn’t squash that hope, then the election of the United States’ 45th president certainly did. What’s Obama’s rock band to do in the age of Trump?
Soldier on, it seems, despite the rising tide of stress that’s afflicting this whole country, soaking both our public and private lives. If you can get past all the heterosexuality, The National might be the closest thing America has ever had to The Smiths: a dexterous guitar band with a magnetically morose frontman who’s able to complain about the government and his love life in the same breath with the same eloquence and the same dark humor. Sleep Well Beast certainly takes the air out of the hopeful balloon that swelled on Trouble Will Find Me, but if there’s ever been a time to wallow in lush, masculine melancholy, it’s now. This beast isn’t going anywhere.
Essential Tracks: “Day I Die”, “Turtleneck”, and “I’ll Still Destroy You”