The seventh studio album from former Brooklynites The National sees the band not only reach another musical milestone, well worth the deserved applause, but also sees their evolution continue to outweigh the scene they grew from.
Sleep Well Beast was always going to be a bigger task than previous 2014 effort Trouble Will Pass Me not only due to the time elapsed between albums creating a pressure most artists like to avoid, but also as time moves on for rock bands there is always a clear artistic question: twist or stick?
“We didn’t feel like rushing it,” says guitarist Aaron Dessner, who produced Sleep Well Beast. “People thought the National went away, but we were just working on ideas.” The pressure between albums wasn’t ever really going to affect the band it seems. They’re a fairly uncompromising bunch, unwilling to bend to anything but the music – a fact which meant they started work on album seven during the tour for album six. “We really didn’t take much of a break,” says lead vocalist Matt Berninger. “We started working on this record the minute we finished touring the last one. The only break we took was from the constant pressure we put on each other.”
It was a writing and recording process which needed time and room as the band’s members are split across five different cities, a new feature for a band steeped in Brooklyn folklore. But it appears as though this enabled the band to oddly spend more time together. Whether in LA or upstate New York, the fact they were so split apart made them come together for longer periods of time: “We’ve always worked on demos together,” Bryce Dessner explained. “But this time we were actually in the same physical space doing it.”This solidity was even taken on the road as the band looked to collaborate more effectively with other musicians, taking the recording and writing process to churches, communist studios in Berlin, and even convened orchestras in Paris. Bryce explains, “We spent a week in East Berlin in this beautiful 1950’s communist-era recording studio with tons of musicians from very different backgrounds, just letting them listen and react to the music we’d been cooking for so many months within the band,” before Aaron added: “It was a very interesting way to collect new sounds and process existing ones.”
So the question is, did they stick or twist? Well, if you know The National you already know the answer was always going to be… a combination of the two. There are tracks on this album that sound distinctly like The National, the most notable is the brilliant single ‘Day I Die’ which hits with an urgency that is completely compelling, while ‘Turtleneck’ adds a particular rock drive.
Lyrically the album is very similar to the band’s other outputs, whereby we see a deeply personal and affected writing process feel universal and engrossing. True poets in their field, they are not regarded as highly as they should be lyrically. The words are about “trying to come clean about the things you’d rather not,” says Matt. “Some of it’s about marriage, some of it’s about my relationship with Aaron and the band, some of it’s about train tracks and dancing.” However, other tracks seem to push what we know about the band right to the edge. An edge that we want to jump off, hand in hand with Matt and the gang.
Musically the band are pushing themselves to uncomfortable positions: “It was important that we genuinely explore new territory and risk falling on our faces, or not make a record at all,” explains Aaron. “This album feels complete to me.” Using more synths and avoiding their traditional hard sound such as (‘Ill Still Destroy You’ and ‘Guilty Party’) adds a new dimension to the band. Thankfully, they evoke industrialisation and digitalisation with the same post-modernist truth that makes The National national treasures.
The band prove on Sleep Well Beast that not only can their creativity not be tempered by distance apart, but it is purely this creativity which drives them together and brings us along with them.
Even after their seventh studio album; forward is still the only turn The National know how to make.