It’s been four years since the release of the critically acclaimed American alt-rockers sixth studio album Trouble Will Find Me, and to The National fanbase it may have seemed that they had been working on everything but new material. From playing Democrat campaign rallies and benefit gigs, album production for other artists, side projects and soundtrack – resulting in a Golden Globe nomination for guitarist Bryce Dessener for his score for The Revenant – you wonder how they had any time for the day job. Sleep Well Beast has been slowly gestating since 2014, both a conscious decision to not rush out new material and one of necessity as the band members relocated to five separate cities.
The new approach of not working to a deadline has allowed the melancholic indie rockers to spread their wings to produce something familiar to their fanbase but throwing a few curve balls in for good measure. Lyrically the group swing from heartfelt examinations of marriage and friendship, to tongue in cheek commentary and dancing. Musically, the soaring yet sombre mood of their previous releases are still present but imbued with a groovier approach as they throw off their shackles and let it all hang out. Guitar riffs pop and fizzle with an unexpected angular attack on some tracks, others with barely a guitar sound to be heard – replaced by grand piano swirls, drum loops, and synth crunches and clicks.
Highlights include the anthemic swell of ‘Day I Die’, the stripped back electro of ‘Walk It Back’ with the commentary on the perils and pitfalls of a long term relationship “I only take up a little of the collapsing space/I better cut this off, don’t want to fuck it up,”’, ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ which delivers a lost 80s pop ballad, the grimy swamp rock guitar riffing tumbling over each other and fighting for dear life in ‘Turtleneck’, and the Nick Cave-esque ballad ‘Carin at the Liquor Store’.
Lyrically and sonically, there is enough familiarity to keep The National’s existing fan base more than happy. However, there is plenty of promise and development from the group to challenge and, maybe, win over even more fans. From headlining the 02 Arena in 2014, to a sell out tour including a four night London residency at the Hammersmith Apollo, it’s hard to imagine that they will be able to climb much higher. But Sleep Well Beast could very well be the stepladder to take them there.