It becomes clear from the first few minutes of Sleep Well Beast that this is not just another record by old-timers The National. Of course, there is no replacing Matt Berninger’s signature croon or Aaron Dessner’s hypnotic songwriting. But this album captures a side of The National that we only see glimpses of during live sets—one that is wide awake, sweating through the setlist with a passion that can only come from experience. It is no surprise that they were inspired by love (and the tests it must endure with age) yet again in their music. However, this record was truly their wake-up call to a changing world: a world in which they are expected to be older and wiser instead of young and carefree. Their first album in 4 years, Sleep Well Beast is The National’s “Goodbye to All That” and hello to a new, repurposed energy.
At the risk of sounding pretentious, I will defend the Joan Didion reference in the previous sentence. Not only because The National love to reference literature in their songwriting (anyone else notice “John Cheever” in the refrain of “Carin At The Liquor Store”?) but because the subject of middle age comes up often in writing and is often executed very, very poorly (cue the sad violin music and melodrama). Joan Didion—and, as of now, The National—are of the few to do it right. There’s a quote in her famous essay about moving to New York, entitled “Goodbye to All That,” that reads:
“One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”
The essay is essentially her goodbye to her old life in New York, the one where anything was possible, and her understanding that it is “a city only for the very young.” The National explore very similar themes in this album, right down to the disillusionment with New York; in opening track “Nobody Else Will Be There,” Berninger croons “It’s getting cold again, but New York’s gorgeous.” Only a few songs later, in “Born to Beg,” “New York is older / And changing its skin again / It dies every ten years / And then it begins again.”
It is possible that New York isn’t the only cyclical force in this life. This album makes it clear that love operates in much the same way, with its predictably catching anyone who thought they were different off guard. The overall tone of the album is a deep-rooted melancholy, created by heavy realizations—most of which involve finding out how incompatible two people in love can really be. In “Day I Die,” the narrator reveals “I used to put my head inside the speakers / In the hallway when you get too high and talk forever,” but the chorus of “Born to Beg” tells a different story: “I was born, born to beg for you.” This back-and-forth is inevitable. It only becomes an issue when you feel you’ve reached your wit’s end. This happens in one of The National’s most forceful songs to date, “Turtleneck,” where Berninger tunes into some of his raucous live show energy to deliver a full-on alternative rock track—a far step away from the moody indie tracks of The National’s previous release, Trouble Will Find Me.
It is not enough to say that what goes up must come down, though. When it comes to the mature, adult love, there’s always some force that brings everything back up, even if just for a moment. This is exactly what happens in the penultimate track “Dark Side of the Gym,” a love song in its purest form. The chorus reads like an extremely romantic (albeit a bit excessively so) version of what love feels like when you feel you have finally found the ‘right’ person: “I have dreams of anonymous castrati / Singing to us from the trees / I have dreams of a first man and a first lady / Singing to us from the sea.”
The last, and titular, track is perhaps the most Didion-esque part of the album. For lack of better words, it describes what happens after everything hits the fan (“I’m at a loss / I’m losing grip / The fabric’s ripped”). But Berninger himself admits that the “beast” he talks about isn’t necessarily something negative; It’s just scary. It’s the future (perhaps the very near future) that you don’t want to deal with. It’s the long day of work that ends with a fight before bed. It’s the love of your life, who really isn’t who you thought they were. It’s the goodbye to the easy, carefree life you let yourself get used to. But, most importantly, it’s the process of picking the pieces back up and moving on.
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Sleep Well Beast: The National’s “Goodbye to All That”: Photographs courtesy of The National/Facebook