The National’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’ is a testament to middle age and memory
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Sleep Well Beast
The first time I heard The National I was sitting in my dad’s car. We had just left Barnes & Noble, where he had spent hours pouring over the music and video section, making careful selections, then returning, then selecting again. It was a time when Barnes & Noble’s vast supply of albums in countless genres still served a purpose; it was a time before iTunes streamed and Spotify robbed. You had to use the scanners propped up next to a pair of headphones to listen to a preview of an album.
I don’t remember what my winnings from the Barnes & Noble trip were. But my dad's blasted through the speakers on the drive home, the next morning on the way to school, the next week, month and so on. Because when the first notes of High Violet’s intro track “Terrible Love” hit me, it was straight in the chest. And as a result, the songs and the album became inescapable.
High Violet has carried me through so much of my life. It’s the record I play when I want someone else to put words to what I’m feeling, when I want singer Matt Berninger’s mumblings to carry me through the day or the month or the year. My sister would blast “Bloodbuzz Ohio” every time we hit the highway in Buffalo, returning home after months in Michigan. I carried my record player into my room on a shitty day last year and played “Lemonworld” at top volume until I fell asleep. Every piece of it has attached itself to my life in a different way, and when the sad, sad months of January and February make their return once a year, I find myself retreating back into its cold hug.
But it’s not just High Violet; it’s all of it. Boxer, Alligator, Trouble Will Find Me, Cherry Tree — piecing them together is piecing together the last two years of my life. So here we are, on the precipice of my third year with Berninger and the Dessners with their newest release, Sleep Well Beast. Here we are with something different and something brilliant. From Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers to Beast, the band has aged — they’re in their forties now — and they’ve perfected.
It’s all in the music. What are these synthy sounds on “Walk It Back” and the chorus at the start of “The System Always Dreams in Darkness”? The smooth, sad perfection they once curated has been pushed a step further and has taken a step back. This record finds producer, keyboardist and guitarist Aaron Dessner at his most experimental — synth progressions ease us into the third track with sporadic static leading us out. And then we pause at the start of “The System,” for we are greeted by a harmony. But then, there’s a step back. It has been a while since we’ve heard the band do rock ‘n’ roll. The drum and electric heavy sound of Boxer and Alligator have finally returned to us after the melancholy of High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me. “Turtleneck” is the best example of this. It is all about the bluesy aggression and dueling guitars.
Yet Berninger is still brooding. It’s easy to dismiss The National as a sad band, but it’s more accurate to say they’re a reflective one. Their songs and music present easily interchangeable reflections on their personal lives as well as our current political climate. Sleep Well Beast, after all, was co-written with Berninger’s wife Carin Besser. Events that unfold over the course of songs like “Guilty Party” and “Carin at the Liquor Store” concern real and fictionalized accounts of their relationship. But they also concern us and the world. They concern real and fake news.
In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Berninger talked about this specific overlap in his songs: “Politics is personal. I don’t understand why people separate love and politics in their art — and I don’t know who does. We don’t expect people who write novels to be like, ‘Oh, this chapter is the political chapter and over here is the love chapter.’ Somewhere along the line, musicians felt it was uncool to be political. It never made any sense to me. Who’s cooler than Nina Simone?”
There is an inescapable tie between love and politics in these songs. Most evidently, this is heard on “Walk It Back” which has a soundcut of Lisa Hannigan reciting a quote from a New York Times interview with an unamed Bush aide (later named as Karl Rove) about the Bush administration. “We’re history’s actors,” he says. Rove and Bush in the big office, they’re creating the reality. The rest of us are meant to sit out in the dirt and await their decisions. While Rove adamantly denies the quote (and The National has already called him out via Twitter), the point still remains clear. “Walk It Back” is the stuff of “Fake Empire” — concurrently the story of a collapsing relationship and a collapsing political reality just as “Fake Empire” was a ravishing political commentary yet at the same time a drinking song.
Once again, we are presented with fiction and nonfiction, the dissolution of an unknown relationship next to inescapable political and social realities. But there is no love lost, only words. Like in “Guilty Party,” a song chronicling the inevitable spiraling of a relationship where one member is simply left with no anger, no blame, simply nothing left to say. And the same goes for “Dark Side of the Gym,” Sleep Well Beast’s uncontestable love song. Even this one dissolves into silence: “There was still nothing I could say,” he sings.
But what is the final tie between the real and the unreal, what we create in the physical world and what solely exists in our minds? Sleep, dreams and their unruliness is what Berninger seems to suggest. But we seem to forget that self-medication applies to sleeping pills and substance abuse; this is the premise of “I’ll Still Destroy You.” It carries us through various states of mind from alcohol and drugs to sleep and sex. “I’ll Still Destroy You” and “Sleep Well Beast” are sisters in this regard. As the songs progress, we progress through various states of Berninger — an inebriated one, a sober one, a pill wrecked one, a tired one. But while “Destroy You” builds up into a crescendo of noise, “Sleep Well Beast” dissolves into silence. “Sleep Well Beast” has a conclusion; “Destroy You” remains restless.
You can take The National’s songs and make mansions or sandcastles out of them. Just as “Turtleneck” can build you up, “Empire Line” can tear you down. “Day I Die” will pull and push you forward, but Aaron Dessner on the piano in “Carin at the Liquor Store” will be the sand that slips through your fingers. Because in the same way I can string together the last two years of my life, you can piece together their records as a whole, and songs from records released years apart. “Day I Die” is an answer to the preceding track “Nobody Else Will Be There,” while “Guilty Party” invariably reminds one of the tragedy that is “Pink Rabbits” off of Trouble Will Find Me; “Carin” responds to “Karen.” These albums tell the story of Berninger’s, the Dessners' and the Devendorfs' lives. This album tells the story of love, loss, struggle, insecurity and time that is running out.
I’ve felt for a while that time is running out for me. My life is careening toward another end, another finale come May of this year. And I’m utterly terrified. But Sleep Well Beast, just as it strings together bits and pieces of these men's lives, it strings together my own. “Walk It Back” keeps playing over and over again in my mind whether or not I have headphones on because of Berninger mumbling “I can’t stay and I can’t come back.” And I’m simply left thinking about Buffalo and Ann Arbor and how the familiar crescendos of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” won’t be heard on the highway back home for a long, long time. It’s the endings of all ends, the time when the fictions of college meet the reality of the world. So here’s to The National, seeing me out.