The National’s new album is gorgeously dark and all grown up
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Among the inspirations for the title song of Sleep Well Beast, The National’s seventh studio album, is a dark and disturbing psychological phenomenon, which in Swedish is called “uppgivenhetssyndrom” or “the resignation syndrome”, which typically affects refugee children and adolescents in Scandinavia who face the prospect of not being granted asylum and being deported back to their countries of origin. These children give up all hope, become completely listless, and often fall into a deep, coma-like state. In an interview with America’s National Public Radio (NPR), The National’s gifted baritone singer and bandleader, Matt Berninger, mentions how when he read about the syndrome, shortly after the results of the US elections, it struck a chord with him and, eventually, led to the lyrics.
Yet Sleep Well Beast, the song, and the gorgeously grand new album of the same name, are not even remotely about refugee children or problems of that sort. True, there are references to politics, such as the presidential elections in the US, but they are nuanced and subtle, never overt. Instead, like all of their past albums, Sleep Well Beast comprises troubled songs, each one heavy with emotion, anxiety and apprehension about relationships. Relationship in singular, really, because The National’s repertoire of songs on much of their discography, especially since 2005, when their third album Alligator caught the attention of critics, can seem to be uncannily autobiographical—at least from the point of view of their main man, Berninger. Karen, a song from Alligator, is a likely reference to Berninger’s wife in real life, Carin Besser, a former New Yorker editor. In its lyrics, a man, presumably Berninger himself, oscillates between swagger and vulnerability in his attempt to impress his wife.
Most of the 12 songs on Sleep Well Beast are also about a relationship (likely the same, autobiographical one) but things have changed. The protagonist is now a father, in addition to being a husband, and his apprehensions are about how things will pan out: the highs and lows of his relationship, the angst about its future and musings about mortality. Yes, dark, not jubilant, stuff. But that’s what The National’s music and songs have always been like. The National originated in Cincinnati, Ohio, but relocated to New York’s musically fecund Brooklyn, and comprises, besides Berninger, two sets of siblings, brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and brothers, Bryan and Scott Devendorf. The Dessner brothers mainly play guitars but also keyboards and other instruments, while Bryan Devendorf is on drums and Scott is on bass. It is Berninger’s vocals and lyrics, though, that is The National’s main force. His baritone is a perfect complement to the deep thoughts and wit in his songs, some of which are co-written with his wife.
On Turtleneck from Sleep Well Beast, which Berninger says, in his NPR interview, is like a catharsis to cope with the devastating news of Donald Trump’s victory, he sings: Keep the weed next to the bed/ Light the water, check for lead/ Dim the lights a little lower/ Hide your backbone, shrug your shoulders/ Give the gift that fits your head/ You have to get this turtleneck. Much of Berninger’s lyrics are composed by free association of words, often triggered by tunes or recordings e-mailed by his bandmates—a guitar squiggle here or a drum and bass line there—which he works with to write the song. Weed and wine are believed to play a role in that creative process. As they do for Berninger during the band’s live performances. Eighteen years after The National was formed, and several years after Berninger gave up his career in advertising to become a full-time musician, he still gets bursts of anxiety while performing in front of audiences and admits that he requires props—weed, wine and an electronic prompter to help him remember lyrics.
Those props certainly work. On 5 September, just days before the launch of Sleep Well Beast, The National performed the album live in its entirety in Philadelphia (the stream is available online) and Berninger was in fine fettle, joking, interacting with the audience, and in his trademark fashion, poking fun at himself. The National’s shows are its audience’s delight. But it has taken time for the band to reach that status. Their first couple of albums—2001’s The National and 2003’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers—didn’t catch the fancy of too many people. Even the brilliant third album, Alligator (2005), took time to get noticed. It was only in 2007, after what many consider their best album, Boxer, was released that the band got its due. That album’s making is covered in A Skin, A Night, a documentary by the indie film-maker Vincent Moon.
With Sleep Well Beast, The National has come a long way. Berninger’s vocals are still deep and broodingly seductive, and the music, especially the drum and bass lines, swell up in the songs satisfyingly. But there are some changes. The lead guitar riffs are more prolific on many songs—there’s even a full-fledged solo on The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness—and the mood of the lyrics is more grown up. The National’s band-members have spread their wings beyond their band as well. Last year, the Dessner brothers produced Day Of The Dead, a compilation album comprising 59 recordings of covers by indie artists of songs by The Grateful Dead, in a tribute to that legendary band. And Berninger himself has been involved in other projects, including EL VY, a band in which he collaborates with Brent Knopf founder of indie bands, Menomena and Ramona Falls.
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ by The National from ‘Sleep Well Beast’
2. ‘Karen’ by The National from ‘Alligator’
3. ‘Fake Empire’ by The National from ‘Boxer’
4. ‘Morning Dew’ by The National from ‘Day Of The Dead’
5. ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ by The National from ‘High Violet’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets at @sanjoynarayan