Upon listening to Sleep Well Beast, I recalled Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, in which he refers to cinema as “a machine that generates empathy.” Music generates empathy in much the same way, generally on a more personal scale.
Considering how intrinsic sadness is to the process of empathy, most music artists will, at some point or another, bare the moroseness of their soul for the sake of their art.
But some artists can outright weaponize melancholy. It’s something The National have done for years, and against all odds, it’s always managed to work in their favor. The band’s songwriting has consistently struck a powerful balance between despair and heart; even at its lowest emotional depths, their work is as animated as it is devastating. The result is a discography that, though not entirely heterogenous due to its repeated emphasis on themes of heartbreak and anguish, wholly explores dysphoria’s every angle, theme, and sound. It’s how The National have remained relevant all these years, and it’s why, even on their seventh album, they haven’t lost any steam in their empathy machine.
Sleep Well Beast was co-written by lead vocalist Matt Berninger and his wife Carin Besser as a reflection of the trials and tribulations of their marriage. Berninger gloomily croaks on “Walk It Back” that “Until everything is less insane / I’m mixing weed with wine”; likewise, the far more electric and bombastic “Day I Die” opens with “I don’t need you, I don’t need you / Besides I barely ever see you anymore.” Some of the album’s most chilling lines come in the opening track, “Nobody Else Will Be There,” Berninger’s raspy appeal for time alone with his wife expressed through the metaphor of departing a crowded party— “Goodbyes always take us half an hour / Can’t we just go home?” he petitions.
Less mature songwriters may have just left it at that, an album about a deteriorating relationship and its associated emotional woes. Berninger, however, has the tact to balance songs about detachment with passionate love songs like “Carin at the Liquor Store” that add dimension and texture to the relationship. When Berninger sings “I was a worm, I was a creature / I get on the ground the second I’d see you” on that song, or “I was born, born to beg for you” on “Beg for You,” his exaltation of Besser creates a compelling context for the album’s heavy heart. That he so idolizes his wife only makes their marital struggles all the more poignant as subject matter.
The National retains a lot of their signature sounds, including the somber balladic pianos, but there’s a great deal of flexibility in the compositions here. The band finds room for two fiery political tracks, lead single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and “Turtleneck,” both of which lean heavily on raucous hard rock guitars; the dazzlingly amorous “Dark Side of the Gym,” meanwhile, uplifts the soul with its lavish strings and twinkling synths. Berninger demonstrates equal flexibility with his voice as he shifts between Ian Curtis howls and Mark Lanegan cracks depending on the tonal context.
The thematic nature of the songwriting and the malleability of the instruments heighten Sleep Well Beast to a piece of biography: the tale of two people struggling to keep their love tenacious in the midst of political and emotional turmoil. It may not reach the heights of 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, but its immense quality and freshness this far into the band’s career is a miracle in and of itself. The precedents the album’s sounds recall run the gamut from Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures to Radiohead’s Kid A to Slowdive’s Souvlaki, but this album exists as a beast all its own. Very few artists in contemporary music sketch tragedy with as much fine detail and shading as The National, so when Berninger sings, “I’m gonna keep you in love with me” on the penultimate track, I find it difficult to disagree.