The National’s Sleep Well Beast is almost worth staying awake for

The cover of The National's new album, Sleep Well Beast

Source: Google Play Store

The cover of The National's new album, Sleep Well Beast Source: Google Play Store

Dyllan Jones, Editor

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The National’s Sleep Well Beast is an excellent indie rock album from the beginning up to the moment it puts the listener to sleep, which should happen about halfway through its hour-long run. It’s a record with a fair share of charms and a continuous progression that plays like a series of bedtime stories from a teenage dad, except it was written by grown, middle-aged adults who should have a strong enough grasp on life’s troubles to offer better insight on worldly subjects than the standard “life is unfair, so drown your sorrows” fare that pervades the genre. One would expect more grounded cynicism from an album that explores such mature themes, yet Matt Berninger, lead singer of The National, insists on incessantly mumbling about gloomy topics without offering a unique take on them.

To be unkind, I must ask: how can an established band of about 17 years justify its continued existence if it never fully evolves its sound? People listen to their favorite artists’ newest albums to hear their most refined work. At least the lukewarm lyricism and vocal performance displayed in the album starkly contrasts to its refreshingly minimalistic production. In an industry oversaturated with excessive production that serves to constantly one-up itself by producing supposed gold and platinum hits on the assembly line, while still appealing to the shallow sensibilities of its listeners, hearing any piece that could be replicated on stage in its purest form is a welcome change of pace.

In Sleep Well Beast, there’s enough unnecessary length to cut with a knife. 30 minutes, if comparatively short, would be a perfect length. Instead, The National gave us an extra half-hour of lethargic, growly throat singing that detracts from the songs’ otherwise cohesive progression. The best songs on display here are those that innovate, tie the excellent instrumentation and mediocre vocals together, and refrain from overstaying their welcome.

“Turtleneck,” for example, is a standout piece. Sonically, it’s more hardcore than anything in the album with its punky, rebellious theme. It adds a dynamic edge to the album’s vocals that had previously only been seen in its instrumentals. I am personally grateful for its existence; if not for “Turtleneck,” I would feel obligated to harshly criticize Berninger’s singing from start to finish. This song, as well as “Day I Die,” proves that he’s more talented than your average somniloquist by allowing him to explore the deep octave ranges inhabited by exceptional singers like Steven Morrissey of The Smiths.

The weakest works on display in Sleep Well Beast are those that flaunt little musicality but bring a great deal of weary groaning to the table, such as the narcoleptic slogfest that is “Guilty Party.”

There is a great work of art trying to squirm free from under this sleeping beast of an album. At times it shines through; at others it’s utterly crushed by an unwelcome contrast between dynamic, inspiring rock and electronica and sedative vocals. Echoing guitar riffs, poppy synth beats, and stellar drums are all wasted on the singer’s mumbly, often incoherent social commentary. Although his scratchy voice occasionally finds its welcome when accompanied with an equally scratchy sound, it’s generally overshadowed by superior accompaniment. If you’re uncertain about this album’s quality, buy a white noise machine instead. Both products ultimately have the same effect.

 

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