In 2013, British music publication NME released its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Four albums on the list were by Cincinnati-based indie rock band The National.
Metacritic, a review aggregator which averages reviews on a scale of 1 to 100, says that albums that earn a score of an 80 or higher shows that it was “universally acclaimed.” Of the six albums The National has rated on Metacritic, five of them have a score above 80. One of them is new release “Sleep Well Beast.” And aptly so, because “Sleep Well Beast” deserves to be standing next to The National’s previous releases.
The album was heading somewhere special way before its September release. With the release of the album’s first single, titled “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” the group was already getting praise. The lead single was named “Best New Song” from Pitchfork, and deservingly so. While some musical elements may have been out of place, the song was still dynamic enough to make you feel like each listen was the first one.
The rest of the album fell in line with the lead single by creating an entire multi-dimensional album that will make each listener of the album “Sleep Well Beast” view it in a different way.
Some listeners will put their focus into trying to decipher messages in guitarist Aaron Dessner and singer Matt Berninger’s lyrics, which are consistently filled with abstract concepts, requiring close listening. Lines such as “Young mothers love me, even ghosts of Girlfriends call from Cleveland, they will meet me anytime and anywhere” in the song “Day I Die” leave me scratching my head.
The lyrics could almost be a little too hard to follow, but thanks to the emotion that lead vocalist Matt Berninger packs into each line, the sense of darkness in their songs that the band is known for is clearly felt.
The music itself has just as many ideas to unpack as the lyrics. Each song has enough musical ideas to make the song interesting with multiple listens, but not too many that it sounds like a complete mess. Along with your typical guitar, bass, drums and vocals, “Sleep Well Beast” features prominent piano and synth lines, electronica-inspired glitches and sampling.
More importantly, these musical ideas aren’t recycled throughout the album. This keeps them fresh and prevents anything from being worn down. In comparison, the recent Queens of the Stone Age album, “Villains,” took a hit as the same ideas were repeated throughout the album. This lessened the force of the second half of the album.
The National did not make the same mistake as “Villains,” and with a range of musical and lyrical pieces fusedt together throughout the album, there’s always something new to pick out at any point in the album.
The downside is that this album has some elements that are uncommon to mainstream rock. With a number of people associating rock with driving, uptempo music, “Sleep Well Beast” is slow and doesn’t exactly hit the listener hard with the music or lyrics, as it takes a while to find the message behind the music. But that’s what makes this album such an interesting listen.
As they consistently do, The National have constructed an intelligent album through combining rock, layered lyricism and experiments with electronica. The next time NME revises their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, “Sleep Well Beast” will give The National another album on the list.