For Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential run, The National performed their song “Fake Empire,” a commentary on Bush-era politics and the need to move past societal disillusionment. Their following records, released during Obama’s presidency, focused inwards, as frontman Matt Berninger explored how his depression and anxiety affected his loved ones and most importantly, himself. It’s nothing that isn’t equally covered on their latest record, Sleep Well Beast, but this time around it’s accompanied with a more sinister undertone.
Like most of America after the events of the 2016 Presidential election, it makes sense for Obama’s stump-speech rock band to feel like the ground has opened up beneath them. Fear isn’t just an existential musing, as CNN alerts and a rash, spontaneous President have brought the emotion front and center in everyone’s minds. In the dread of a Trump presidency, The National’s music also underwent subtle yet strong alterations, as Berninger flips his usual foreboding thoughts outward, externally affecting the world around him, especially his marriage.
The songs on Sleep Well Beast encompass the breaking point of a failed marriage, as both partners struggle to reclaim what was lost. Berninger pleads for impossible compromise on “Empire Line,” expresses his anxiety on “I’ll Destroy You,” and comes close to defeat on “Guilty Party,” themes that hark back to High Violet‘s “Conversation 16,” but now out of Matt’s head and put into practical use in the real world.
Ironically enough, the record was co-written, like most of Berninger’s lyrics, with his wife Carin Besser, a previous fiction editor for The New Yorker. In all actuality, their marriage hasn’t fallen apart, and they’re currently living in Venice Beach, CA with their daughter Isla. As Matt once explained in an interview with Independent, “I write sad songs as a way of staying above water,” and what better way to stay above a failed marriage than to the tackle it head on?
The reality of Sleep Well Beast is deeper than its surface, as it portrays how anxiety and fear, two emotions on high in 2017, can affect domestic life. Coupled with experimentations of drum loops and synths, gritty guitars, and some of the most intimately recorded vocals of their entire career, the feel of Sleep Well Beast combines the echoed-back themes of “Fake Empire” with the anxieties of fatherhood and marriage from their previous records High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me. Showcased on the opener “Nobody Else Will Be There,” the band’s strength lies in being heartwarming even in despair, and like all National records, it’s hauntingly beautiful.
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