Almost immediately, Matt Berninger invites you to have a drink, and it’s the kind that’s only as fun or self-pitying as you choose to make it. “Meet me in the stairwell in a second for a glass of gin,” he half-sings, half-mutters in the first verse of the National’s recently released Sleep Well Beast. The first track, “Nobody Else Will Be There,” is in this band’s grand tradition of mesmerizing opening tracks, and sets the tone for what, outside of a few raucous moments, turns out to be a remarkably restrained and textured album.
An increasing proportion of that texture is electronic, continuing the band’s progression from 2010’s excellent High Violet. There is as much drum programming here as there is Bryan Devendorf’s distinctively assertive drumming. Assert himself he does, though, alongside the classically trained Dessner brothers on guitar and keyboards. It’s the prodigious instrumentation that makes the National consistently worth listening to, and this album is no exception. But, as ever, it’s clear that it’s Berninger’s show. On the lead single and album highlight “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” he grabs the mic and belts out a showstopper of a chorus at the upper end of his range, and it’s not the last time he ups the ante on his octaves from his characteristic baritone.
There are really only two other tracks on the album on which the band really lets loose and rocks out. One of them, “Turtleneck,” displays the National at their most transparently political and perhaps their loudest ever as they exorcise their anti-Trumpian rage. The decibel level never reaches half as high for the rest of the album, but unfortunately it’s otherwise not that memorable of a tune. The next track, “Empire Line,” is a slow builder with a cool payoff, a trick this band has been honing for years. “I’ll Still Destroy You” is probably the best marriage of digital backup and analog hooks on the album, while the similarly layered “Guilty Party” contemplates the resigned difficulty of a marriage or relationship in which there really is nothing new to learn about your partner.
“Carin at the Liquor Store” displays the National at the top of their game, with a lovely hook to keep the listener entranced over the course of a tightly constructed and ethereally sad love song. “It’s gonna be different after tonight / You’re gonna see me in a different light,” Berninger pleads. Ultimately, despite the electronic presence at a record high, Sleep Well Beast doesn’t signify a major evolution, and it probably isn’t the kind of album to convert a newcomer. (That’s a job better left to 2005’s Alligator or 2007’s Boxer.) But it’s a damn good album, and certainly one deserving of a drink or three, alone or with a partner, if nobody else will be there.