If you are into melancholic music, then I recommend you listen to this little weeping willow of an album. On Sept. 8, The National released their new album “Sleep Well Beast.” The album is very much within The National’s brand—the record features many dark and con- templative dirges with profound lyrics. How- ever, there are subtle ways in which the band explores new sounds by incorporating quiet electronic beats and harsher guitar elements.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with The National, they are an alternative rock band from Cincinnati, Ohio. Since their first album in 2001, the band has been prolific, releasing seven al- bums total and solidifying their role as a staple of sad indie rock music alongside Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens. There is nothing too crazy about this band, but they are remarkable in that they bring sadness to their songs like no other. This has resulted in a niche audience out there thriv- ing off of the melancholic nature of The Nation- al’s tracks.
The best word to describe this album is downtrodden. While songs alternate between gentler melodies and more lively rock, there is an undeniable darkness that shades every track. Compared to past albums, “Sleep Well Beast” continues The National’s discography in a pre- dictable way. Almost every song in this album could be swapped with another song in their 2013 album “Trouble Will Find Me,” and nobody would know the difference. The album even maintains some of the same themes as “Trouble Will Find Me,” touching on ideas of heartbreak, guilt and the complexity of love.
The album begins with “Nobody Else Will Be There,” a deeply troubling title you probably could have guessed. Even on full volume, I would describe this song as quiet. It starts slowly with a distant clattering rhythm keeping the pace of the song as a pretty piano melody rolls in. Lead singer Matt Berninger mumbles into the track like it is a sad lullaby, “You said we’re not so tied together / What did you mean? / Meet me in the stairwell in a second / For a glass of gin.” The song ends with the utterly depressing lyrics “Goodbyes always take us half an hour / Can’t we just go home?” before Berninger moans the repetitive chorus once again: “Nobody else will be there then / Nobody else will be there.”
Even though the track is quite gloomy and hopeless, I thought that these lyrics held a understated brilliance. The imagery of meeting in a stairwell to talk about a broken love and then skipping that ritual goodbye evokes that very specific but yucky feeling of being both restless and tired in a relationship.
The song really pinpoints that emotionally draining circumstance we are all too familiar with—having that very long conversation with someone and having nothing left to hash out but still being unhappy with the conclusion. The second track on the album, “Day I Die,” was a more upbeat song, believe it or not. The song is posed as a response to the first track, marking an acceptance of the trouble of Berninger’s relationship. It also incorporates a fresher sound with some electric guitar strums opening the song.
Other highlights include “Walk It Back” and “Dark Side of the Gym.” “Walk It Back” has an interesting bridge towards the end of the song where The National includes some sampled audio of political analyst Karl Rove talking about political realities. The quote’s hopelessness about politics mirrors the hopelessness of the track and the relationship Berninger is singing about. Turning away from the defeated vibes of the previous tracks, “Dark Side of the Gym” has a more dreamy and sleepy melody. It takes a step back from analyzing the darkness of Berninger’s relationship and presents a more nostalgic approach, talking about the first time Berninger encountered his love.
Arguably the best song on the album is “Born to Beg.” Yes, it is dreary and talks about Berninger’s insatiable sadness over his love, but out of all the tracks on the album, I think it is the most alluring musically. The piano is desperately beautiful and there are delicate hovering sounds that give the song an ethereal quality, making it stand out from other dreary tracks.
Overall, the album is undoubtedly a cry fest. It definitely has its beautiful moments and poetic lyrics, but I couldn’t help but feel a little bored with it. The problem is that “Sleep Well Beast” is incredibly similar to past albums, and while I respect The National’s consistency, it would have been interesting to see the band approach their songs or themes with a vastly different angle than incorporating one more electric guitar than usual.
Additionally, there were some times when I felt like the album—with all due respect—just needed to buck up. The sadness was a little ridiculous at points and did not enrapture me as much as the melancholic nature of Father John Misty’s newest album. However, I do understand that this signature despair is what the band was going for.
Regardless of the dullness and overwhelming depression, the lead singer’s voice is quite charming, and you can tell that the band put a lot of thought into the construction of their rhythms and lyrics. Check it out if you are in need of a good cry, as we all seem to be needing one at this point in the academic year.