By Thomas Johnson, September 15 2017 —
Since their days as a middling quintet amid the New York garage rock boom that blossomed with The Strokes and Interpol, The National have been steadfast in their consistency. They’re like comfort food — chicken soup for the iPod.
A progression exists with each album, but you generally know what to expect. Frontman Matt Berninger projects midlife anxieties into achingly beautiful couplets. Bryce and Aaron Dessner flood Berninger’s melodies with sweeping arrangements and increasingly baroque production techniques. Scott and Bryan Davendorf, bass and drums, respectively, propel the music forward.
Their seventh LP, Sleep Well Beast, distinguishes itself in the band’s catalogue through a new-found sense of adventure. Trouble Will Find Me, their 2013 opus, marked the apex of a distinct palette, while Sleep Well Beast subtly tweaks that template. Throughout the album’s 12 cuts, tiny flourishes rear their head in unexpected places. Distortion, clipping, unorthodox sound bites, sampling and drum machines waft through the band’s typical ennui.
What’s remarkable is how these experiments are integrated into each track. Rather than driving the melody, these additions add a layer of oppositional texture and grit. In fact, most challenge the song’s tempo, only to fall away beneath the weight of the instrumentation.
This slight retooling shouldn’t deter established fans. Despite the inclusion of electronic elements, The National remain a rock band at their core. The Dessners remain capable of searing guitar riffs, like in the lead single, “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness.” The Davendorfs continue to weave some of the most intricate rhythm sections in modern music and Berninger’s baritone conjures devastation and ecstasy unmatched by his contemporaries. Several of Sleep Well Beast’s songs — “Born To Beg” and “Dark Side Of The Gym,” notably — rank among The National’s most beautiful.
That Sleep Well Beast would be a success was a foregone conclusion. The National have been poster children of consistency for as long as they’ve been jamming. There’s no defeat in familiarity. A winning formula is, by definition, a victory.