22 albums, 227 tracks
It wasn’t till I heard ‘Sleep Well Beast’ in its birthplace of Copenhagen did I truly understand its true beauty
I had never seen The National live until the summer of 2017. It was Glastonbury, the band were making their main stage Pyramid debut, playing just before a headline performance by the Foo Fighters. You need to understand, this is a monumental slot for any band, a pinnacle for any British group let alone an international one like The National. Its also an important stepping stone for a band to prove they can headline the biggest festival in the world. Unfortunately that night, everything went against The National. The skies turned a sour grey, crowds dispersed and their set (consisting of a majority of unheard material from the then forthcoming SWB) did not go down well at all, failing to connect with but a select few - I like many others walked away bitterly disappointed. A few months later, mere weeks away from Sleep Well Beasts launch, I was covering The National’s very own debut festival Haven in Denmark. It was to be there, tucked away in a field/industrial plant in the corner of a secluded part of capital Copenhagen in which the beautiful piece of art that is Sleep Well Beast would make me sing, cheer and most surprising of all… shed a tear.
An album tailor made for reflective youths to connect too
I’d always been aware of The National, I have such an affection for the indie music genre and their peers like Arcade Fire, The Staves and one of the bands closest friends and collaborators Bon Iver (Justin Vernon) who was also present at the Danish Festival that weekend, but I certainly had never been grabbed by any of their music and after their disappointing Glastonbury set I couldn’t imagine my opinion shifting anytime soon. However, the draw of Bon Iver and a sudden crazy moment of self motivation and clarity I gained when I quit a longterm managerial position of six years to pursue my dream of writing about music had suddenly left me with a vacant two week period which needed filling, I chose the day of quitting my job to be the spontaneous moment I’d fly to across the sea to attend the Haven Festival. Maybe it was the sudden overwhelming feeling of loneliness, the daunting fact I wouldn’t see my colleagues who had become close friends on a daily basis anymore or maybe it just finally clicked but I suddenly grew a deep connection to the Sleep Well Beast album, specifically Nobody Else Will Be There. As you can imagine from the apt title, the song reached out to my lonely soul. Whilst the lyrics are more focused on a romantic relationship, I found that the tracks sparse melody deeply resonated with my feelings. Berninger’s vocals give them impression he’s deeply yearning for company and meaningful interaction, so when I first head the song after spending a week travelling a foreign country known for its cold and miserable weather I simply couldn’t relate to him more.
An album that blends classical composition with modern technology
Sleep Well Beast is an incredibly melancholic album soaked in darkness, but its within the bleakness does the true beauty of the record stand out. What could easily come across as depressing or boring instead creates a powerful connection to the listener. I believe this is down to the way The National, more specifically the Dessner brothers experiment with melody and composition. Their orchestral and classical music abilities shine as they use instrumentation that is usually associated with brighter moments on records and switch the style to create a sense of grief that matches the lyrical content. The affect I believe this has on you, Is that the song leaves you constantly expecting a joyful burst but instead it toys with those expectations and feeling by keeping you hanging on, left anticipating a sense of relief. The perfect example of this is ‘Guilty Party’ a sublime song that starts off with a synthesised drum beat and glitchy production, something you associate with Techno music, suddenly the deep and dramatic low octave of the grand piano enters ‘feeling defeated’ sings Berninger as he speaks of fighting a losing battle in a relationship losing its love. As his pitch gets higher so does the instrumentation, hope ensues in your heart. This builds and builds until a climatic midpoint centred around a unstable harp chord that once again provides you with hope. Suddenly the track pulls a bait and switch again as the instrumentation is stripped away to be replaced with a downbeat blare of a horn before suddenly it dissipates into a glitchy mess. Thats why this album is so special it subverts expectations all the while. The real beauty is not how it does things better than other albums, its in how it does things no other record even attempts.
An album that can make a personal connection
Finally, I can’t talk about this album without mentioning its emotional peak. The moment that for me blended both of the records key features. ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’ puts together the emotional back story I mentioned all the way back at the start of the narrative with a masterclass in instrumentation. Before I first heard the track at Haven Festival, The group dedicated it to one of the Dessner’s Grandmothers who had passed away shortly after hearing the track, his story was full of heartfelt emotion but the real gut punch came when they hit those first piano notes, without knowing it tears fell from my eyes. I believe no song since Elbow’s glorious 2008 track ‘One Day Like This’ has been as finely crafted emotionally and musically until I heard ‘Carin’, its the song for me that gave me an enormous feeling of respect for The National, I had never appreciated them or maybe it was the fact the right factors were never in place for me to truly understand them, but nonetheless was in that moment that I fell in love with Sleep Well Beast. its also that point that has stuck with me for years since. I’m incredibly excited for their forthcoming record I Am Not Easy To Find but I doubt it will manage to displace the special place in my heart in which Sleep Well Beast sits.
Official Music Videos
- Beggars Banquet
The National is an American rock band from Cincinnati, Ohio, formed in 1999. The band consists of Matt Berninger (vocals), Aaron Dessner (guitar, piano, keyboards), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Scott Devendorf (bass) and Bryan Devendorf (drums).