Political strategist Karl Rove described The National’s song “Walk It Back” as “a euro tech pop thing.” The National’s response? “F—k you, Karl.”
Rove was asked to comment on the song because “Walk It Back” features a recitation of an infamous quote about political manipulation of reality, which is often attributed to him. More amusing than the idea of a web conflict between Rove and The National, however, is Rove’s comically off-base description. Rather than peppy dance track, “Walk it Back,” as well as the rest of The National’s latest album, is somber indie rock that paints a picture of middle age in shades of gray and sepia.
“Sleep Well Beast” is the seventh studio album from the Cincinnati band. Although The National released its debut album in 2001, its 2005 record “Alligator” was its first project to receive widespread critical acclaim. The band’s 2007 follow-up album, “Boxer,” was included in many “best albums of the decade” lists, solidifying the group as an indie rock staple. A decade later, The National continues to perfect its craft, sticking with the same muted folk rock that first brought the band to fame.
The bulk of the album consists of toned-down instrumentation, focused on lead vocalist Matt Berninger’s murmured vocals and supplemented by resonant piano chords. The first track, “Nobody Else Will Be There,” exemplifies this style; the song takes its time and spotlights Berninger’s powerful voice and lyrics with a quiet beat. Interspersed between these tender moments are higher-tempo songs with more prominent guitar arrangements, such as “Day I Die.” On this track, a catchy guitar riff breathes life into the album; although the tone remains wistful, the guitar adds a spark which makes the song’s emotion more piercing.
Unfortunately, The National does not pull off this more aggressive style as well on “Turtleneck.” Although it has an enticing introduction, the song’s verses are awkwardly mumbled and the chorus feels forced. The assertive tone of the song feels glaringly out of place on an otherwise reserved and reflective album.
On more subtle tracks, the standout element is the percussion and drumming, handled by band member Bryan Devendorf. His steady hand guides “Empire Line” forward; as the beat gathers momentum, Berninger’s vocals rise with a sense of urgency. The following song, “I’ll Still Destroy You,” is blessed with another energetic finish as the frenetic drumming takes center stage.
This instrumental core is embellished by touches of sound, which often serve as bridges or endings. The gentle melody of “Guilty Party” dissolves into dissonant tones and industrial beeps as the song ends, lending a mysterious, sci-fi-inspired conclusion. Subtle flourishes like this are used throughout the album to create a sense of malaise.
For example, “Empire Line” has a single shrill note alongside the more conventional instrumentation toward the end of the track, heightening the tension. The spoken word on “Walk It Back” generates a similar disquieting feeling. These additions are minor compared to the discordant noise breaks often used by indie rock contemporaries Wilco, or post-rock bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s long spoken word passages.
Overall, the music on “Sleep Well Beast” is crafted with subtlety and attention to detail, and The National focuses more on setting a melancholy mood than creating catchy hooks or innovative ideas. “Sleep Well Beast” has little daring experimentation, however, never straying far from The National’s standard musical formula despite a few creative flourishes.
Additionally, there are surprisingly few moments of visceral sorrow that come through, as The National settles for a general air of gray depression instead of crushingly emotional moments. This means that although “Sleep Well Beast” might leave the listener with a dull sadness, it is unlikely to leave a lasting emotional impression.
The National’s lyrics are consistent with the tone of the album, dealing with mature themes like marriage and self-medication. “Dark Side of the Gym” seems to be referencing the opening phase of the vocalist’s relationship with his wife, with the repeated chorus of “I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while.” Flash back to the present day, and this nostalgia is gone, replaced by fading romance on “Guilty Party:” “I say your name / I say I’m sorry / I know it’s not working.”
Occasionally, the lyrics are less literal and more literary: “I’ll Still Destroy You” conjures images of medication while obliquely referencing Shakespeare with the line “It’s so easy to set off / The molecules and caplets.”
“Sleep Well Beast” makes a great soundtrack for a foggy early morning stroll through the countryside, with its somber melodies and grave musings on the sorrows of middle age. Its length is merited by the subtleties contained in its production and lyrics, and there is enough variety in the track list to satisfy fans of The National. But for those in search of fresh indie rock ideas or deep emotional catharsis, “Sleep Well Beast” leaves something to be desired.