With ‘Sleep Well Beast,’ the National brings new layers to gloom and heartache
Seven albums into the band’s career, there’s a level of fame to be expected from being in the National, who headline the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday.
Frontman Matt Berninger, who was reached by phone at his hotel room between a recent run of shows in the U.K., described some of his response to National’s new album “Sleep Well Beast” becoming the group’s first No. 1 in that country (back home in the U.S., it debuted at No. 2, another career high).
“I just went and was buying some shirts, and it came on BBC or whatever their main radio station was, and I started singing along to [early single] ‘The Day I Die’ – just perfectly, perfectly in sync with the song,” he said wryly, still a little proud. “And the two women at the shirt shop thought I was just . . . yeah, they didn’t catch on.
“We are the – what are the opposite of household names?” he joked. “It’s sort of the perfect level of fame.”
Which isn’t to say he or the band has reached the point of late-career coasting. Some three years in the making, “Sleep Well Beast” has many of the familiar hallmarks of a National album, but with new wrinkles. While the National doesn’t shed its reputation for vivid if often gloomy chronicles of domestic disenchantment and discord, this album’s heartsick lyrics such as “I know it’s not working, I’m no holiday” on “Guilty Party” feel particularly raw when considering it’s the product of a married couple.
Berninger’s wife, Carin Besser, a former fiction editor at the New Yorker, is co-credited for lyrics and melodies on “Sleep Well Beast” alongside her husband. Though she’s appeared in the National’s credits dating back to “Boxer” in 2007, it feels worth asking Berninger: Is everything OK? He laughs at the question.
“We have a really healthy marriage,” he said, adding that while he sees most of the album as “pretty slippery” in more concerning relationships with fear, friendship or even one’s country, “Guilty Party” really is about the breakup that it seems.
“You go through breakups, little breakups, like little emotional things where you just can’t talk to each other for a day or two,” he said. “So we look over the edge. We let each other evolve, we let our marriage evolve. We dig into it. She’s just as interested in the truth of the human soul as I am.”
Such exploration on “Sleep Well Beast” is accompanied by distraught, disruptive arrangements. Buzzy electronics and a latticework of percussion frame “I’ll Still Destroy You” while glitchy textures and arcs of guitar rise and collapse around the amorphous, album-closing title track. The noisy “Turtleneck,” by contrast, is probably the most barbed rock song ever released by the National, who sound like a band still reaching for new directions.
Onstage at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, the band continued with its long held ability to translate inward-facing drama into onstage catharsis. From quiet beginnings, “I’ll Still Destroy You” closes with a squall of guitar noise worth of Sonic Youth and first single “The System Dreams In Total Darkness” plays like a swiveling dance number with Berninger tilting into odd angles to reach its shout-along chorus.
“We wanted to throw away the playbook,” said Aaron Dessner, who produced “Sleep Well Beast” and, along with twin brother Bryce, forms part of the intricate two-guitar structure for the band. “Obviously when Matt sings or even when Bryan [Devendorf] drums you can still recognize the National. But I think we needed to sort of open a new chapter and push ourselves.”
Part of that effort was simply bringing everyone back into the same place. Each member of the National now lives in a different city, but the group has long had a fragmented work structure where the Dessners, along with the sibling rhythm section of Bryan and Scott Devendorf, would submit in-progress music to Berninger for him to write and record lyrics over. Dessner likened the unconventional process to “designing a building and building it in pieces.”
To upend this process, Dessner designed another building; a new recording studio outside of his home in upstate New York dubbed Long Pond. Specifically built for the National’s specific needs with plenty of open space to foster a relaxed sense of collaboration, the studio became a central figure in “Sleep Well Beast,” so much so that it’s pictured on the album cover.
“It’s the combination of tranquil and beautiful and really sort of scary,” Berninger said of the space, which backs up against a pond. “Like any watering hole, it’s also where the predators come so we’d be working on stuff late and hear, all of a sudden, this swell of coyotes yelping, which sounded like old ladies screaming to death, and it’s terrifying.”
“It was not only recording it was also, like, hanging out with each other,” Dessner said. “It was the first time in a long time where we were actually just enjoying being friends and not being on tour and not being in some sort of pressurized situation.”
But the cover’s stark nighttime image is misleading. While evoking a band walled off from the world, “Sleep Well Beast” extends the National’s track record of collaboration. Previous albums have included a long roster of guests such as Sharon Van Etten, Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and this album goes a step further by including the results from a free-flowing residency the Dessners hosted at a former radio center in East Berlin called the Funkhaus.
“Bryce and I had an open studio where we were just working on the National record. We had turned all the vocals off, but anyone could come in and play, even audience members could come in and play and we were recording everything,” he said. Vernon and the German electronic duo Mouse on Mars were among those on hand, and the effort gave the record some fresh, unexpected flourishes.
“If you go back and listen to [“Sleep Well Beast”] you might start to pick out elements which might have come from that time, because they tend to be a little bit wilder or just more like ... not necessarily sympathetic to the proceedings,” Dessner said. “More and more I think to have a sort of rewarding musical life you need to be open and collaborative. That’s what sustains you, not building the National up to this giant arena rock thing, or whatever.”
But after seven albums of mining his emotional entanglements for material, does Berninger ever regret sharing too much in a song?
“I really regret around 20 to 30% of everything that’s on every record,” he said with a laugh. “But you got to wear something to prom. And you know, on one level or another, in a few years you’ll look like a fool in those photos, but you gotta go to prom.
“I’m OK with a certain level of humiliation,” he added. “I choke it down.”
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The National with Local Natives and Daughter
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., L.A.
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.
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