This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre: Indie Rock
Favorite Tracks: “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” “Empire Line,” “Guilty Party”
After all the acclaim they’ve gotten and all the styles they’ve adopted, it’s easy to forget that The National started out as a quiet, breezy alt-country act. The band’s best record, BOXER, was their most straightforward, rooted in familiar Joy Division-esque post-punk revivalism that nonetheless sounded invigorating behind musings about the painful transition into adulthood and the workplace. My point is that the band’s genre and electronic experimentation has never been what drew me into them—it was their obtuse lyrics and portraits of miserable, selfish, hedonistic, well-meaning people trying to make it in an unfamiliar, hostile environment.
SLEEP WELL BEAST’s excellent lead single, “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness,” seemed to take the oppressive, miserable loneliness in a congested world that made BOXER such a compelling listen to the next level. It was no longer about feeling lonely in New York City, but feeling lonely in an entire society or world, and I was hoping the band would be able to conjure that same mood through the entire record. However, the songs here are much smaller and less ambitious in lyrical scope, making the band’s numerous flaws rise to the surface when they could be more easily overlooked before.
Matt Berninger’s voice has always been a defining feature of The National. His gravel-scratched baritone has consistently imbued the band’s music with so much more life experience, even when they were just starting out, and while it isn’t as unintelligible here as it was on TROUBLE WILL FIND ME, it’s starting to become really irritating. He just doesn’t have enough range or charisma to keep things fresh by himself seven albums deep into his career, and the heavenly harmonies that made HIGH VIOLET enjoyable and novel aren’t as prominent either. The tracks they’re used most on is “Dark Side of the Gym” and “Nobody Else Will Be There,” but both singers sound half-awake, and the former’s recording is surprisingly murky.
While the quality of sound on a National record is never in question, performances have never been the band’s strong suit. The jangly post-punk guitars are always gorgeous, but they are pushed to the side in favor of piano and vaguely industrial electronica a la Nine Inch Nail’s recent EPs. Sadly, songs like “Born to Beg” and “I’ll Still Destroy You” loop their programmed beats incessantly and stagnate, and I don’t know why the band continuously relegates their drummer to a secondary role so often in favor of synthetic percussion. His rhythms always seemed off-kilter to the rest of the band, but they still gelled with the bunch in a creative way that only happens on maybe three tracks here. So much of the performances are dominated by brooding lethargy that when an animated, propulsive tune like “Turtle Neck” pops in, it sounds like a forgotten B-side from BOXER that was slapped onto the album at the last second.
Perhaps I am being unfair in expecting every track on here to be like “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” but it could have been a great thesis statement for a record about man versus a cold, machine-like society that traded intimacy for security. This is a band that knows how to say a lot with very little; songs like “Squalor Victoria” and “Mr. November” were lyrically repetitive and minimal, but that repetition gave them additional depth and meaning. They further added to a character’s sense of narcissism or the veneer of a workplace that slowly stole your livelihood. Sadly, song topics are familiar avenues, and they aren’t given enough of an abstract feel or unexpected twist through song structure or performance. Nothing more is felt by Matt repeating, “The day I die / where will you be” over and over in an oddly cheery disposition that doesn’t feel deliberate at all. The vividness of character and situation I expect from The National only comes through on “Empire Line,” the train station in the title a reference to the emotional distance between our two lovers with a hook whose repetition adds desperation.
It’s an improvement over TROUBLE WILL FIND ME, but The National are only good as their weakest link, and SLEEP WELL BEAST is not short on those. The vocals are more monotone than ever, the performances have somehow gotten more anemic, and there aren’t enough interesting stories here to invest in the absence of anything else. More than anything, this record gave them a chance to deliver something not about man versus his lover or man versus himself, but entirely about man versus all of society. I have heard all of this before from these guys, but better, and no amount of drum machines or post-production work can make up for that.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend