To indie rock fans, the National represent a very specific brand of cosmopolitan melancholy — despairing, yet tasteful. It’s a worldview which either resonates deeply with listeners, strikes them as indulgent and self-pitying, or bores them to tears. On “Sleep Well Beast,” the band’s first album in four years, the National stretch out of their comfort zone both musically and lyrically, yet no amount of reinvention can disguise the sad-sack heart beating at its core.
The most noticeable change in the National’s approach is their newfound interest in electronic instrumentation. Glitchy beats, monotonously pulsating synths, and distorted gurgling machines appear throughout, making “Sleep Well Beast” the most sonically engaging National album yet. These effects are primarily used to dress up otherwise typical National songs, like the skipping percussion which invigorates the piano ballad “Guilty Party.” Other songs feature more ambitious arrangements, perhaps influenced by guitarist Bryce Dessner’s side gig as a classical composer; take “I’ll Still Destroy You,” which prominently features xylophone before climaxing with cinematic string swells and Bryan Devendorf’s powerhouse drumming. Meanwhile, anyone craving some “Alligator”-style rockers will get a kick out of the galloping “Day I Die” and the blistering teenager’s lament “Turtleneck.”
Lyrically, singer Matt Berninger is less preoccupied with his own ennui than usual. Love songs abound, though they approach marriage from the pleading perspective of one convinced he’s unworthy of his partner. Politics rises to the surface too, if in unexpected ways; the muffled spoken-word bridge on “Walk It Back” alludes to the power of governments to propagate “alternative facts,” while an anti-Trump verse juts awkwardly out of “Turtleneck.” Berninger can still catch your ear with an evocative line, but his exact meaning sometimes gets lost in translation. When he cries “I cannot explain it/ any other, any other way” on the chorus to the swaggering “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” it almost sounds like an apology for his lapses in lucidity.
With “Sleep Well Beast,” the National have traded heart-tugging melodrama for a more relaxed world-weariness. There may not be any moments of dramatic catharsis to compete with “Sea of Love” or “Mr. November,” but the band’s gift for slow, sad beauties (“Nobody Else Will Be There,” “Carin at the Liquor Store”) remains undiminished. Even as they tinker with their style, the National can’t help but sound like themselves.