Since the release of Sleep Well Beast, the seventh studio album from the National, the commentary has settled into two camps. There are those who insist that the album represents a serious modification of the band’s sound, pushing into intriguing new sonic territory. Then there’s the counterargument, maintaining the material is an echo of all that’s come before, and a little pallid due to that familiarity. Maybe, just maybe, both camps are correct.
Sleep Well Beast couldn’t have come from any other band. All of the National trademarks are in place, including Matt Berninger’s deep-pitched vocal gravity and the lush intricacies of the music conceived by twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner. The sound of the National doesn’t move so much as it undulates, sending out tendrils of melodic texture to snake in the listener. At the most comfortably in line with past triumphs — like the loping “Day I Die” and the intoxicating, spirited croon of “I’ll Still Destroy You” — the band almost seems to be offering an assurance. There may be embellishments around the fringes, but the general mode is same as it ever was. When a band’s legacy is as strong as the National’s, echoes aren’t a bad thing.
I’d argue Sleep Well Beast is also successful when the National explores different terrain. “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” scabbed with rhythmic, electrified guitar trills, practically aches to turn into the sort of disco-fied arena anthem Arcade Fire has been trafficking in of late. The song’s stubborn refusal to do so creates its own satisfying tension. Similarly, “Turtleneck” takes an established form and adorns it with so much restless exploration that the evocative yet cryptic lyrics (“Now Mother, let your daughter dance with me/ I’d like to spin her wild around the cottonwood tree/ There’s something ’bout her eyes, I think her roots are rotten/ This must be the reason she wears her hair up in knots”) resonate with a revived immediacy, allowing for a bracing connection with the band’s plainspoken poetry.
Even so, there are stretches, especially late in the album, when the material is mired in its own dulled introspection. The lyrics sometimes tip toward the redundant and trite, as on “Carin at the Liquor Store” (“It’s gonna be different after tonight/ You’re gonna see me in a different light”). But the graver problem is a sense that the music stays locked in a dreadfully low gear. “Dark Side of the Gym” is the band at its sleepiest, and the lengthy title cut, which closes the album, is obviously mean to be ruminative and profound. In truth, it meanders, tromping down high grasses without ever forging a path.
If Sleep Well Beast is a mixed bag, the National have earned the imperfections of their experiments. Their ability to combine earnest dramatics with quiet insights is unmatched among their peers. They make music that demands to be heard, wrestled with, felt down to the marrow. The offerings here don’t drive as deep with the same sort of immediacy, but I suspect they might keep burrowing as time goes by.