The National Sleep Well Beast

The National – Sleep Well Beast (4AD)

I recently read the suggestion that the The National are the modern day American equivalent of The Smiths, full of introspective self-loathing and cathartic gnashing of molars. Personally, I don’t buy the comparison, I have always pigeon-holed the band as a Stateside Elbow (no don’t laugh!) on account of their ability to reduce the world around them to a series of oblique monologues. Like Elbow, their trajectory appeared to be heading on a collision course with the mainstream with the release in 2013 of the radio-friendly Trouble Will Find Me. A far cry from the disturbed rage of ‘Fake Empire’, ‘Karen’ or ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, the album appeared to lay the ground for their descent into middle-age conformity and national treasure status.

There are two ways to grow old musically, you merely accept it pragmatically or you take Nick Cave as your inspiration and age disgracefully by pouring scorn and ire on everything around you. Sleep Well Beast takes the latter approach and Cave is clearly a touchstone as album opener ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ could easily have wormed its way onto Push The Sky Away; soporific keys giving way to the usual gruff, irascible vocals of Tom Berninger who, as always, has the air of a man for whom life is just too damn difficult.

Thankfully, the remorse and self-pity is back in spades throughout Sleep Well Beast. ‘The Day I Die’ with its archetypal despair sees Berninger take aim at a doomed relationship and positively ridicule his subject into submission whereas ‘Guilty Party’ offers up the flip-side of his personality, more conciliatory in tone with the refrain “there’s no-one to blame/no guilty party” as yet another liaison is consigned to history. Speaking as someone who has endured a troubled 12 months, this is what I want, no this is what I need, from The National. I don’t want a jaunty pick-me-up. All I require is yet another verbal capitulation from Berninger & co to confirm what I already know, the world is going to Hell in a non-motorised vehicle.

In between the self-flagellation, the political jibes are only a track or so away. The electro-weirdness of ‘Walk It Back’ may hint at a tale of ‘don’t say we didn’t warn you’ regarding the Trump era but on ‘Turtleneck’, allegedly written the day after the US election heralded doom for all mankind, Berninger has his blunderbuss well-trained on the evil he sarcastically describes as “the genius we’ve been waiting years for.” The result is as visceral as anything you’d find on Murder Ballads. If you haven’t experienced The National in their seething, splenetic finery then this is the moment you come to realise they are never, ever going to become Elbow. The fire still burns as intensely as it did a decade or more ago.

But for me, it’s the haunting damnation of fatherhood within ‘I’ll Destroy You’ which really makes my blood chill. For all their intellectual fury and rampant nihilism, the simplicity of the line “Put your heels against the wall/ I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you/ I’ll still destroy you.” will leak tears from any absent heartbroken father.

Seven albums in and The National are no nearer to discovering happiness and thank The Lord for that small mercy. They will always incur the wrath of the anti-hipster brigade who point to them as poster boys for bearded millennials but that is to mis-understand their worth. For anyone with Borderline Personality Disorder, Sleep Well Beast is your anthemic survival guide to the modern world. Dismiss them at your peril. they’re not done yet.

Sleep Well Beast is released on September 8th on 4AD

  1. Liking what I’ve heard alot especially Guilty Party. Shifting their sound but retaining what is great about them!They are up their with Goldfrapp in terms of consistent bands of the last ten to fifteen years for me.

  2. “take Nick Cave as your inspiration and age disgracefully by pouring scorn and ire on everything around you.” Cave is ageing far too gracefully as far as I’m concerned. He hasn’t poured ire on anything since the mid 90s. Still more interesting than The National though.

    1. The Smiths, Cave, Radiohead these comparisons don’t really work for me, they aren’t as immediate as any of those. Elbow is a decent one. The National craft their own sense of enveloping melodrama out of small moments, I really like them. Fair enough if you don’t Tim, I’d listen to Boxer and Alligator and watch their rather unique band biopic if people want an entry point.

      1. I’ve listened to those albums having been recommended them by various people whose opinion on such things I can generally trust, but I just hated them. They sound like a bog-standard indie band who once listened to a Tindersticks album and have been trying – and failing – to achieve the same kind of gravitas ever since. They clearly spend more time working on cool song titles than on actually writing decent songs, and their lyrics actually make me laugh out loud to think that a mature adult human wrote them. As you’ve no doubt gathered, I really don’t like them 😀

        1. Tim, I’ve been feeling disappointed about the comment you left on my Susanne Sundfor review about the Scott Walker tribute, but you’ve totally redeemed yourself here in my eyes. I have listened to four different National albums (one album that I bought twice just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything back in my pre-streaming/downloading days) and I can’t remember a single thing about them. They will never have the charm, beauty and variation of peak Tindersticks. They’d be lucky to make something as good as the weaker Tindersticks moments. I am truly baffled at how big they’ve become repeating that same boring trick over and over. They’re more like a Stateside version of Snow Patrol then any of the bands they get compared to. The endless rave reviews they receive still briefly make me think I’m missing out, but then I hear one of their plodding songs and I start yearning for Tiny Tears or Marbles instead.

          1. YES YES YES. Glad it’s not just me. The amount of normally sane people I know who think there’s something special about these dullards is utterly mystifying.

            As for Suzanne Sundfor, she may be good at what she does but she’s not good at covering Scott Walker.

  3. It could just be a taste thing. Don’t get me wrong I do see there is alot of critical hype about the National some of it a bit ott, but I do like them. I see the Tindersticks comparison maybe in their more sedate moments but things like ‘Terrible Love’ and ‘Lit Up’ are actually effective rockers too.

  4. Oppsite for me,

    The National are by far the best band America has produced this century

    Tindersticks on the other hand are band that make the will to live a difficult thing to achieve

    Anyone who doesnt like “england”, or in fact the whole “high violet” album doesnt like music or shouldnt be writing about it

  5. OK Scruff, I’ve taken your advice and given up listening to and writing about music, on the basis that I don’t appreciate a bunch of overrated frauds. Thanks for enlightening me.

  6. …and herein lies a perfect example of a Marmite band. People either luv ’em or hate ’em.

    For what it’s worth, I have a long held theory about The National. They appeal largely to the disaffected, the disillusioned and, most importantly, the introspective. In other words (and my review does allude to this), if you are the kind of individual who struggles with issues of self-esteem and self-hatred then there is an awful lot to digest in their songs and plenty of like-minded solace to be found.

    However, if you are a well-balanced and confident individual then I imagine The National come across as whining, doom mongers who need to pull themselves together.

    As Nietsche advised us, when you look into the abyss it looks back at you and for many fans of The National that’s precisely the point.

    1. In which case Dean I am precisely in The National’s demographic, and yet I just find them laughable. It’s not that I find them boring, like say REM; I actually find them comical they’re so bad.

    2. Probably the worst case of 4th division self appointed psychiatrist pseudo babble even seen on the Internet, people used to say about The Smiths, yet the lyrics are infused with such a clever self parodising it it goes over most peoples heads.

      Ive never been depressed, never been poor, never been self critical. Yet The National are my favourite American band

      In fact I’m something of an ego maniac, over confident at times, if R Kelly believed he could fly then I built his fucking wings and overtook him, whilst whistling ” Mr November” the people you think DONT listen to the National are the happy clappy fuckwits who buy one album a year, usually by Ed Sheeran and pick up the odd compilation in Sainsburys cos it has a bright colourful cover, and thats a far more depressing existence than listening to one of the best songwriters in living memory

  7. haha, its not a personal attack on you Tim

    I just have certain touchstones in music, The Beatles, The Smiths, Bowie, Stone Roses, Elbow, National, TV On The Radio to name most of them

    If someone says they dont like one of those bands then I tend to switch off to everything else they have to say even if occasionaly we do find common ground.

    For me, music isnt about technical ability or placing notes in a pleasing order its abiut the feeling you get from it, and I fail to see how anyone can fail to be moved by The National, but enjoy the soulless monotone drawl of someone like Tindersticks.

    However, I would consider giving up 🙂

    1. With you on The Smiths, Bowie & the Roses, and Elbow if we’re just talking about Asleep in the Back. And I agree with your definition on what music is about, but the only thing The National move me to is laughter. Actual laughter. And I guess as few bands have that effect they should be applauded for that at least.

      As for Tindersticks, I’ll concede that Staples’ voice is an acquired taste but then so are most of the voices I like. And I can’t think of a band who are LESS soulless.

  8. The National is an extreme case of being subtle. They arguably have one of the most consistent discographies post 2000 in rock history.
    MATT Berninger has a distinct sound, and is as characteristic and soulful as Bob Dylan or Jim Morrison. Not the most technically gifted singer, or with the most range.
    The real deal with this band is the slow build-up of the song framework. Around it, is a unique sonic sound, just like U2 had it back in the days. Both Dessner brothers are musical geniuses when it comes to composing beautiful melancholic sounds. Particularly, Boxer is the sort of album which you can’t describe meaningfully why it strikes you.
    The backbone of this band, and which separates it massively from most alternative rock’s peers is the drummer, Bryan Devendorf. The rhythmical sections are as complex as listening to Radiohead.
    So simple songs, distinguished lyrics, melodically sublime, but simple, and extremely complex drumming is the key composition of this band.
    I like their “attitude” of being mid-age left-oriented middle-class introvert guys. And they have always been a great live act. (I have seen them 4 times).
    Agree with Scruff that The National has separated themselves from everyone as the best American rock band. Probably you would have to spell to Wilco, Bon Iver or Grizzly Bear to come the closest to being the best American band of the last few decades.

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