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Few bands manage the art of the slow-burn with the control, drama, and scope mastered by the National. The group continues to practice such strengths on its seventh album but also adds a few variations on its proven low-key approach. Electronics currents, abrupt volume shifts, and the more prevalent use of classically oriented strings and horns suggest a creative evolution partially based in its members’ recent involvement with Grateful Dead tribute projects as well as a desire to welcome added mystery, innovation, and surprise into the mix.
Led by Bryan Devendorf’s unassailable jazz-minded percussion, the quintet works in and around chamber-rock frameworks that allow the moodiness, darkness, and tension central to a majority of the songs to smolder. Designed to draw listeners in close, the oft-sinister music operates on a subconscious level, with nuanced devices and Matt Berninger’s smoky, patient baritone prying open the doors to private conversations and secluded rooms. The effects can be both jarring and claustrophobic, thrilling and beautiful. Check out the perspective-altering synthesized oscillations on “Walk It Back,” finessed ambience contrasting the impending gloom of “Born to Beg,” and stacked rhythms that build from small crests to close “Empire Line” with a punctuated insistence. During “I’ll Still Destroy You,” vibraphones and prancing strings generate a false calm at odds with the lyrical sentiment.
A specialist in chronicling the disconnect, mistrust, and regret that frequently infiltrate intimate relationships once they sour, Berninger serves as a narrator for a host of reprehensible characters. Many remain aware of their own faults. Estranged emotions and nasty revelations coincide with a brief screech of guitars amidst the pattering “Day I Die.” Dying hearts and desperation pull at the threads of togetherness on the romantic “Born to Beg.” Culpability and remorse follow the waltz of “Carin at the Liquor Store” in diplomatic fashion. The gorgeous ballad “Guilty Party” dismisses any notions of blame, yet dissolution is at hand, with Berninger regrettably crooning, “We just got nothing/Nothing left to say.”
On occasion, the National turns away from the interpersonal and toward the universal. Such moves also beget an explosion in sound and tempo. Feedback swells, zig-zagging beats, and can-opener guitar riffs charge “Turtleneck,” which witnesses the band at its most untucked and Berninger issuing vicious, thinly veiled commentary regarding leadership. Secrets and accusations pile up on “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” where shadows become illuminated by way of a catchy refrain and dance-baiting groove. Accept the latter invitation at your own risk.
Pressed on blue vinyl, Sleep Well Beast sounds infinitely better than the group’s early works in analog and on par with 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. Detailed, textured, and wide-screened, the LP set functions as a magnet and encourages you to critically listen. Dynamics, forever an Achilles heel on the National records, could still benefit from improvement. That said, 4AD’s packaging deserves a thumbs-up for its die-cut inner sleeves and thick lyric sheet/poster.
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