Friday, September 15, 2017

album review: 'sleep well beast' by the national

So I've talked about The National before, the long-running indie rock project that outside of Spoon might be one of the most consistent critically acclaimed rock bands working today, beginning in alternative country before building its middle-to-upper class depression, melancholy, and vicious commentary on it all to impressive, occasionally thunderous, post-punk tinged heights. And while thematically they fell in very similar territory to LCD Soundsystem - at least in terms of obvious appeal to critics - the devil was in the details, the lived-in stories that didn't even pretend to build a veneer of cool in their weary trudging vulnerability, leading to an unsurprising populist streak that has consistently pulled me in. Their 2013 record Trouble Will Find Me hit my top five albums of that year, and yet even with that I'd still say it's not their best - probably going to Boxer there, although I will say High Violet probably had more immediately striking moments when it didn't get lost in the opulence.

But by now some of you might have seen the hidden catch: for as much as The National made music that by some definitions could be called 'middle-aged', there was a certain understated reserve of composure that did have its own distinct brand of ego and pomposity, more subtext than text but definitely visible if you were paying attention. And here's the funny thing: frontman Matt Berninger noticed it too, so he teamed up with Brent Knopf of Menomena to vivisect it as part of EL VY and their debut Return To The Moon - which made my year end list in 2015 for righteously taking down how such a world-weary sensitive indie rocker could also be an insufferable, condescending, pretentious twit, including an impressive downer ending where he only barely learns a lesson by not getting the girl. And make no mistake, Return To The Moon only gets better with every listen, but it had me worried about Sleep Well Beast and how well it'd resonate, knowing that Berninger had skewered this very persona two years earlier. But that wasn't going to stop me from listening to what could be my most anticipated indie rock record of 2017, so what did we get on Sleep Well Beast?

...and I thought the new Bleachers was going to be the biggest album disappointment of 2017. I'm almost at a loss for words here, struggling for comparisons that make sense, because not only is this a sonic departure for The National, it's the sort of awkward shift in territory that you might see it coming thematically, it certainly doesn't execute on its potential! People called Nick Cave's Grinderman project a midlife crisis, but it at least was a return to territory he knew - no, Sleep Well Beast is the real midlife crisis record, not just in subtext but in execution as well, and while there's just enough quality to salvage it from mediocrity, it sure as hell is a drop-off from their last work or even the record from EL VY - it might well be their worst album. 

Okay, that's a steep charge to make - and believe me, I don't want to make it, I'm a fan here, so let's start with what works on this record... most of which I can trace to the songwriting and framing. Matt Berninger described the themes as focusing on a failing marriage, and I'll give him points for digging deep into the strained awkwardness, forced smiles, and sense of utter burnout that shows this relationship on the verge of collapse. Now this is not easy stuff to make appealing music out of, but this is also territory in The National's wheelhouse... which makes it a little awkward they try to crowbar in other themes and undercurrents to augment the uncertainty, which doesn't exactly sketch to as solid of a parallel as they seem to think. At best you get the 'reality based community' monologue attributed to Karl Rove, which at least fits within 'Walk It Back' as the protagonist trying - and mostly failing - to build his own reality - but when you follow it with mournful references to gentrification on 'Born To Beg', or the big single 'The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness' or 'Turtleneck', which are songs that are more pileups of panicked free association imagery in the aftermath of the election, they can feel distracting. Good distractions, mind you, and we'll come back to that, but on some level they do feel out of place, especially when followed with more personal tracks like 'I'll Still Destroy You', which adds kids to the strained relationship and the self-destructive downward spiral. Then you get tracks like the love song 'Dark Side Of The Gym' which again, a song I like, but its hook is anchored in the line 'I'm going to keep you in love with me for a while', and while you can tell Berninger is self-aware about his narrator's flaws, the placement of the song so close to the end and the framing in the instrumentation makes it clear that possessive ego isn't one flaw getting examined enough and might just be at the root of many of these problems! And then we get the closing title track, which shows himself fading in favor of children who might be able to fix all the problems he could not, be they a relationship or something bigger... 

And we're left with the broader thematic parallel, and an expansion upon similar themes of Trouble Will Find Me, but where that record seemed to reconcile some vestige of responsibility and comfort in the continuous skid towards rock bottom, Sleep Well Beast... doesn't, and here the consequences ring broader! I'm not denying that Berninger does a good job conveying his anguish here - although I question how much slipping towards his higher, Dan Bejar-esque delivery flatters him, especially when there are points that demand he get more visceral and he doesn't really get there - but thematically there isn't the same acceptance of responsibility, and acknowledging that you're passing a bad legacy down to your kids doesn't excuse the fact that you're still doing it. And yes, there's a point to be made in accepting when things just aren't going to work and you've failed, and sometimes through nobody's direct fault things just don't come together, be they a marriage or an election - but across this record on songs like 'Guilty Party' you get a willful deflection of any real responsibility, and passing down the consequences to those who don't have your power or privilege, expecting them to keep trying despite your damage while you recede to the background... yeah, I don't have a lot of patience for that.

But hey, just because the artist hits a philosophical point you completely disagree with doesn't take away from the construction of that point, and from a writing standpoint The National do deliver - it's just a shame that from a production and execution standpoint this record falls as flat as it does. Not precisely from a composition standpoint - The National can still write a decent melodic hook - but in assembling it you get the impression that a central idea was just badly misinterpreted. Going back to Nick Cave's Grinderman for a moment - and indeed many of the records The Bad Seeds released in the 2000s - many people characterized it as a back-to-basics midlife crisis record because it was lean and jagged and unsettling, proof he could still fight in a young man's game. And you can see similar ideas here - jagged, unsettled guitars, more unstable, quicker percussion work, less of a foundation in the production overall to highlight that uncomfortable instability. And yet the more I listened through this record, the less I was convinced any of it worked at all. Let's be brutally honest, even at their most raucous The National were not The Birthday Party, and you can tell from a production vantage point they're not really comfortable being as wild or noisy in their pickups - hell, even comparing to Boxer I find the tones here underwhelming or oddly muted, lacking in body and more characterized by dreary pianos and synthesizers picking up more melody than the guitars and a low end that feels choppier and more staccato, lacking that thicker, sinuous groove. And it's not helped by picking up percussion that can feel more trip-hop inspired than anything else - I mean, how else would you describe the muffled rattle of 'Empire Line' with its blocky kickdrum, or the xylophone and ramshackle skittering breakbeats of 'I'll Still Destroy You', or the watery title track with its popping coos and awkwardly spliced in drum machine that runs for over six minutes but feels twice as long?

Or take the opening track 'Nobody Else Will Be There', a piano ballad with a faint distant scratch serving as a beat and some thin keening feedback and hints of strings ebbing around the main melody. Similar thing for 'Walk It Back', and sure, while there's a little more thickness in the low-end synth, or go to 'Born To Beg' with its thrumming tap beneath watery pianos, it feels like something that might have shown up on Nick Cave's Skeleton Tree minus any sort of crescendo or real bit or solid pay-off - which is not a good sign! 'Day I Die' might be better with its frenetic low drums and spiky squeals of guitar, but its seems like there's more focus on extraneous percussion elements and synths than any solid bass-driven melodic groove, at least until the bridge. The record hits more of a stride with tracks like the thrumming minor melodies and sharper grooves on 'The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness' but even then I found myself wishing they saw fit to give the low-end some consistent muscle beyond the crescendos that only pay off to one decent guitar solo! 'Turtleneck' is better with the firmer low-end, but it's the most naked Bad Seeds imitation of The National's entire career and not one that Berninger is quite capable of pulling off in his delivery, he doesn't have the depth of vocal tone or rawness. But after that this record sinks into a set of extended dirges driven on formless pianos, stuttering beats, and keening fragments that don't really regain some foundation until 'Carin At The Liquor Store' with its watery solo and firmer pianos... but even then, it'd be a lesser cut on any other National record. Similar case for 'Dark Side Of The Gym' - I like the melody and hook and the strings piece on the outro is interesitng, but the scratchy edges around the drums don't excuse how processed they sound. But it's reflective of the weird dichotomy of the instrumentation on this record: for as unstable as it's trying to sound in its layers and composition, not only is there no palpable sense of menace or deeper tension, the production and engineering never takes enough steps to get all the way there! The glitch and electronic elements seem if not tacked on but an element fused in that makes the project lesser for it in the long run.

And yet, in a twisted sort of way, I can see how the band themselves might defend it: after all this is a more muted and restrained affair than previous records, the situations they are looking to explore are small and uncomfortable and unstable and thus the production should mirror it by de-emphasizing the thicker grooves and guitars in favor of more synthetic percussion... and on some level, I respect that. But there's a line between intentional artistic awkwardness and the fumbling of a veteran group with real talent that should know better, and even if you didn't like High Violet for its bombast or Trouble Will Find Me for its reverb-drenched dirges, there were melodic grooves and powerful crescendos that could transcend the missteps, and neither the content or production does this for Sleep Well Beast. Folks, before hearing it I was hoping this record could make my year-end list in 2017, and it breaks my heart that it falls this short, and while its thematic cohesion - and the inclusion of 'Turtleneck' and 'The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness' - saves it from mediocrity, it's a 6/10 and only really recommended for fans of The National, and even then, I can see you being disappointed. Granted, if you've got more of a tolerance for these overproduced percussion lines and overall a more formless experience without the production blending it properly, you'll probably like this - believe me, I wish I could join you. Otherwise... it's okay to sleep on this one.

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