Since day one, The National have been nothing if not consistent. The band’s steely determination, workman-like attitude and quiet progress stands in direct contrast to contemporaries such as Interpol or The Strokes, bands who exploded onto the indie rock scene at the turn of the century before slowly fizzling out or winding down on subsequent albums. Instead, the Ohio based five piece have spent 18 years and six albums honing their craft and building an ever expanding fan base on the strength of their signature sound – a melodic, sombre brand of indie rock that has produced a slew of widely acclaimed albums spanning from 2005 breakthrough Alligator to 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. The National’s eighth effort unsurprisingly delivers another quality edition to their catalogue, but also provides the unexpected pleasure of premiering an intriguing new sound and the first real sign of the change in the band’s career.
Early lead singles ‘The System Dreams In Total Darkness’, ‘Guilty Party’ and ‘Day I Die’ hinted at this abandonment of tradition with electronic tinges and track loops, forgoing the traditionally dour sound of the band’s guitar rock with an injection of energy and pace never present before, and the entirety of Sleep Well Beast continues in the same vein, challenging older listeners with an unmistakably stylish, experimental sound across 12 tracks that swagger and slide between old and new ideas throughout their 57 minute running time.
The best moments on the album arrive when the band mesh their signature guitar and piano work with the digital touches that are sprinkled throughout Sleep Well Beast, resulting in a transformative and uncharacteristically liberating sound that seems to spark new life into frontman Matt Berninger. Album highlights such as the patient piano and drum loop build of striking opener ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ and synth-backed standout ‘Walk It Back’ find the frontman in rare form, as he fully embraces the new lease of life given to his classic baritone delivery and literary lyrics through the exploratory production.
While the band spend plenty of time exploring new territory to great effect (most notably on centrepiece ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ and the feverish, nightmare inducing title track that ends the album on a distinctly unsettling note), there is also plenty of room for a more traditional post-punk sound, as on heavy rock refrain ‘Turtleneck’ in the wonderfully subtle build of ‘Empire Line’. The dark romance of piano ballad ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’ transports listeners back to the majestic beauty of Boxer, arguably the band’s magnum opus.
Ultimately though, Sleep Well Beast has to be characterised as a major shift in The National’s trajectory as they subtly embrace a bold new direction with newfound confidence, befitting of their now veteran status. By fusing their inherent indie rock characteristics with an innovative approach, The National simultaneously deliver an accomplished, quality record and lay the groundwork for a fascinating future path.