“Sleep Well Beast”
BOTTOM LINE Stepping away from the indie-rock anthems to tell more intimate stories.
The National’s Matt Berninger’s rich baritone almost always sounds soothing, even when delivering the darkest material or in the most unusual of circumstances.
It has become the band’s calling card and “Sleep Well Beast” (4AD), its seventh album, proudly carries on that increasingly successful tradition. The first single, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” recently became The National’s first No. 1 single on any chart, topping Billboard’s Adult Alternative chart, and it’s easy to see why.
Berninger’s vocals start out calm, though Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s edgy bursts of guitar seem to unnerve him enough to move to the upper part of his register, especially as the relationship he is singing about starts to unravel.
“Guilty Party,” which also seems hitbound, looks at a relationship already destroyed, though with hopes of remaining amicable. “It’s nobody’s fault,” croons Berninger, over a skittering beat and an unlikely keyboard-driven groove. “No guilty party. We just got nothing, nothing left to say.”
However, unlike The National’s recent albums, especially 2013’s “Trouble Will Find Me,” much of “Sleep Well Beast” is about expanding the band’s horizons, even while maintaining the core of their distinctive sound.
“Carin at the Liquor Store” is a piano ballad that Berninger fills with detailed lyrics about a potential relationship. “Day I Die” is unexpectedly aggressive, with its distorted guitars and Bryan Devendorf’s uptempo drums that push Berninger into the most upbeat delivery on the album, all as he muses where he will be when he passes away. And the raucous “Turtleneck” sounds almost like it came from a different band with its chugging guitars tinged with Southern rock and Berninger adopting the cadences of a preacher.
It all works surprisingly well. The National may be known for delivering a certain sound masterfully and the group still does, but it also has plenty of tricks left up its sleeve.