The National are one of those bands where you either believe it or you don’t. Matt Berninger’s vocals are deep and emotional, but easy to lack impact if the instrumentals don’t properly embolden his baritone wallow. Spanning nearly 60 minutes and made by a bunch of bros now all upwards of 40, “Sleep Well Best” didn’t give me much hope going in. However, the work manages to deliver throughout as deeply textured, lush material occasionally reaches for the rafters with big drum parts and streams of crying guitar. Perhaps it’s not the group’s seminal work, but it’s one that should impress fans old and new.
Particularly catchy single “The System Dreams in Total Darkness” gave the veteran group their first Billboard hit, and it operates well as a centerpiece of sorts. Opening with pillars of piano, the song’s catchy guitar interjections herald in chugging bass lines and inspired vocalizations. The whole album sort of emulates it’s cover with the smoldering swaths of black highlighted with dashes of clear, brightness and here, the chorus flourishes with backing vocals and strained high-notes.
Thematically, the work doesn’t necessarily follow a single, cohesive narrative, however, a great deal depicts anxieties within a relationship and here Berninger touches upon the idea of isolation, the phrase “the system only dreams in total darkness,” alluding to the idea that his current relationship only thrives when both parties are totally focused on it and perhaps missing out on other things. Considering other parts of the record Berninger seems to be critical of his partner and himself, but it shows a certain maturity when he expands his lens in the middle of the work to depict potential systematic issues.
The momentum in this song seems to seep into the rest of the album, but with a lot of different variations. The band is the most direct on “Day I Die” with the streaming guitar lines and the pounding tom pattern. “Born to Beg” lilts and yearns, but the Steve Reich-inspired synth backdrop adds a constant sense of tension; and “Guilty Party” drives with electronically induced drum kits injects a pulsing drive to the somber mood.
Lyrical highlights include opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” where Berninger seems to be meeting up with a past love interest: “Can you remind me the building you live in/I’m on my way.” He feels as if there’s still something there and hopes they can put everything behind them and embrace: “Goodbyes always take us half an hour/Can’t we just go home…nobody else will be there.” The line, “Holding our coats/We look like children” helps paint the scene as Berninger wonders about the childishness of it all.
Here and there, Berninger seems to throw a lyrical air ball: “It’s so easy to set off/The molecules and the caplets.” Get it? Instead of Shakespeare it’s drugs (side eye), but “Carin at the Liquor Store” encapsulates the sonic and lyric wins on the project. That piano line flows like hot tea with a glorious atmospheric guitar line rounding out the ending. The lyrics are still dark “so blame it on me, I really don’t care, it’s a foregone conclusion,” but with the embolden sonics, it feels like and ending point on a journey of self-disovery.
The album is still long, but each song is inspired and unique, yet committed to the smoldering mood. Feels good to hear an indie act aging with grace and still occasionally kicking ass.