The National Sleep Well Beast

[4AD; 2017]

Styles: rock & roll
Others: gin, vodka, wine, weed, pharmaceuticals

We approach art on our knees, hands outstretched to receive its asylum. We beg art to allow us to annex it into our lives in order to patch up our individual voids and our collective ones. People used to look to art to reveal something about reality; now we look to art to remove us from it. We put in art what we can’t seem to put in ourselves: hope. “I really need the new album by The National to be good,” we think. “I hope it will absorb me for a while and distract me from myself.” Of course, we don’t vocalize that second part, not even to ourselves, at least not most of the time. Art can’t live up to what we charge it with, and if we are expecting it to, neither can we. Art is not a withholding parent or lover, though — it’s the fabricated lover (ourself) who approaches us in a dream, offering us freedom; we wake from this dream in a pure, enveloping sadness, because we know that the only way to resurrect that feeling in waking life is to achieve it. If we want to be free, we must dream a better dream and then realize that dream upon waking. Alas, we wake up with loss every day, and then we get dressed and go out into the world. In the four years since Trouble Will Find Me, The National have gone from “I am secretly in love with/ Everyone I grew up with” to “I’m just trying to stay in touch with/ Anything I’m still in touch with.” O, desperate plateau of adulthood, will you ever release us? Yes, it replies. Eventually.

“It’s called Alligator. You’ll like it. It’s pretty cool,” Carrie said to me as we were closing up shop at Blockbuster. “Come to the party tonight, I’ll have it on.” The year was 2005, and I didn’t want to listen to Alligator or go over to Carrie’s house for a party. I wanted to be alone, to claw at the impenetrable wall separating me from everything, to watch movies by Fellini and Truffaut and Woody Allen in bed by myself. But I decided to go out that night, to momentarily overcome the feeling that nothing mattered; or rather, if nothing mattered, I thought, it may as well not matter at a party. There I would find that there was something communal about Alligator and The National, but also something desperately isolated.

I would see The National alone in a local basement venue for Boxer in 2007, Matt Berninger hanging from the ceiling while yelling the lyrics of “Mr. November” to about 200 people. Later, I would see The National by myself in Berlin on their High Violet tour, and I would walk around the city alone, listening mostly to Alligator. I would see them alone again at Pitchfork Music Festival and with friends at LouFest, and I would end up selling my box seat for the Trouble Will Find Me tour because I was too depressed to go. My relationship with The National has been lonely, even when I’ve bonded over them with friends. Now Sleep Well Beast is here, and it’s an album for adults. And as an adult, I feel like I relate to it more than anything else they’ve done. I understand Berninger’s ambivalence about his drug and alcohol use, and I understand his desire to go home from parties in spite of a restlessness that keeps him up at night and wakes him up at 5 AM every day to re-read the same passages in the books he keeps close. As I listen to “Day I Die,” I wonder how many of my relationships can be boiled down to Berninger’s “I don’t need you, I don’t need you/ Besides, I barely ever see you anymore/ And when I do, it feels like you’re only halfway there.” There are a few people in my life with whom I’ve had important, life-changing relationships but who have been reduced by time to this lyric. It’s sad, but it’s life. The National never run from these difficult realizations; they sit with them, because they know that that’s where the truth is.

Earlier this year, it was unclear what The National were aiming for with Sleep Well Beast. Their drone-footage music video for “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” — combined with the song’s claustrophobic guitar tantrums — seemed to gesture toward a potentially lame, Trump-era attempt at OK Computer. The song, however, turned out to be great in the context of the album, and we can read the video as playing out the album’s investigation of the relationship between one’s public and private (or external and internal) lives. “Nobody Else Will Be There” is the band’s cloudiest album opener by a longshot, and its clicks, echoes, and piano ostinatos find an even more focused band than the one that produced Trouble Will Find Me, one of the best rock albums of this generation. “Day I Die” is the spiritual sequel to Alligator track “All The Wine,” complete with grandiose lyrics from Berninger about people being in love with him and references to Alligator’s mysterious Val Jester. It’s also a tremendously powerful, smart composition that further develops Trouble Will Find Me’s wise balancing of towering guitars, handsome synths, and clockwork drums. Every member of this band is wholly present and firing on all cylinders here, and that’s one comparison to legacy-era Radiohead that does fly.

One of Sleep Well Beast’s greatest accomplishments is its convincing and seamless integration of acoustic and electronic instruments. A standout in this respect is the melancholic, daunting “Guilty Party,” which sells its electronic drum kit so well that the transition to analog drums 90 seconds in is both barely noticeable and deeply felt. “I’ll Still Destroy You” is absolutely gorgeous, blending its icy keyboards and programmed drums with live percussion, exquisitely intertwining guitar lines, and string passages that actually add drama to the song. “The more level they have me/ The more I cannot stand me/ I have helpless friendships/ And bad taste in liquids” is a devastatingly grown-up passage that leads to further private ruminations that we probably shouldn’t be hearing, but are. “Born to Beg” is longing incarnate; he approaches her on his knees, hands outstretched to receive her asylum, begging her to allow him into her life so she can tend to his void. “Carin at the Liquor Store” is a stunning love ballad that narrates the miracle of a depressed person gaining enough distance to fall in love. These songs are about holding the despair of adulthood alongside the blinding joy of having people around to care about. It’s a necessary balance and a difficult one to master. The record’s music mirrors its theme perfectly, setting anxious electronics and glitchy guitars against sleepy piano and Berninger’s resonant, dark liquor lyricism.

Berninger has said that his wife, Carin Besser, helped him write the lyrics to Sleep Well Beast. Will it save his marriage? Only time will tell. Will it save his life? Doubtful, and it won’t save yours either. Art can’t do that for us — all it can do is help us distill what’s true about our lives in order to help us better understand the way we live. The rest is up to us. This album isn’t a great work of art, and it’s not an answer, but it does get pretty close to capturing what it means to be a fucked-up person who wants to maintain what’s good in their life despite the feeling that they’ll eventually destroy it one way or another. This is that “midnight, six drinks in” shit, and it’s also that “sober at 5 AM, staring at the ceiling” shit. Few albums today do it this well.

This past weekend, St. Louis’s annual multicultural event — Festival of Nations — was happening in Tower Grove Park, two blocks from my apartment. I didn’t want to go, but my friends Tom and Marilyn asked me to meet them there, so I went along. If nothing matters, I thought, it may as well not matter in the park. I queued up Sleep Well Beast on my iPhone and headed out on foot. As I walked upstream through thousands of people, I enjoyed the feeling of listening to The National’s new album on my earbuds; I felt alone, but surrounded by people, looking forward to drinking, but knowing it wouldn’t do much for me. “This would be a good ending to my review,” I thought. “This moment and feeling. I just need to come up with the right way to describe it so that everyone will know that I had an authentic experience.” Right at that second, two little girls motioned to me from a park bench, so I stepped off the path and out of the flow of traffic. “Do you want to hear a joke?” one of them asked. “Yes,” I replied. They both said, simultaneously, “A joke!” “That’s a good one,” I said. “You got me.” I laughed.

Most Read