How The National Kept Their Heads And Made Yet Another Great National Album With ‘Sleep Well Beast’

Cultural Critic
08.29.17

Graham MacIndoe

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“Want to take a dip?” a publicist asked shortly after I pulled up to Long Pond, a chapel-like recording studio on the outskirts of Hudson, New York owned by The National’s Aaron Dessner. She was referring to an actual pond located behind the studio that cuts through the 10-acre lot, placing the studio on one side and Dessner’s house on the other.

I declined the offer. I was about to interview The National about their seventh album, Sleep Well Beast, a beguiling if also schizophrenic collection of furious political rock songs and intimate electro-folk ballads about marriage and how being in a band for almost 20 years can feel like marriage. The night before, I watched The National play Sleep Well Beast in its entirety for around 800 fans at Hudson Basilica, a former foundry and glue factory that’s been repurposed in recent years as a music venue. And, like lead singer and prodigious stage boozer Matt Berninger, I enjoyed several drinks during the set and did not feel like swimming the following morning.

The National made Sleep Well Beast at Long Pond, and you can see the studio on the album cover, a black pyramid set against a gray sky with the band visible inside of a square window. Ultimately, I ended up talking to 80 percent of The National — drummer Bryan Devendorf was already in the pond, opting to spend a muggy July day swimming rather than doing an interview.

The National’s retreat from the city — where the band migrated from Cincinnati in the late ’90s, eventually emerging as unlikely champions of the New York City rock scene by the dawn of the ’10s — to upstate New York recalls some obvious antecedents. But unlike Bob Dylan and The Band in the late ’60s, who made The Basement Tapes together 50 summers prior about a half-hour southwest of here in West Saugerties, The National was not inspired by rural surroundings to simplify its sound and revert to roots music.

On the contrary, Sleep Well Beast is the most dynamic and musically sophisticated National album yet. The band experimented early on with drum machines, synthesizers, and avant-classical flourishes, a process that began with Aaron and his twin brother, Bryce, collaborating with scores of musicians in Berlin. Another round of sessions in Los Angeles two years ago found The National going in a radically different direction, working in an improvisational, garage-band mode inspired by punk groups like The Minutemen. At Long Pond, The National reconciled these approaches, resulting in a hushed, dreamlike record occasionally interrupted with explosive, musically violent outbursts.

The influence of country life on Sleep Well Beast wasn’t apparent until I visited Long Pond. While Dessner’s land is serene — birds chirp, critters coo, cute kids splash water by the dock — it’s also remote enough to feel a little spooky, even sinister, especially at night, when the tranquil is cut with the bustle of life-and-death struggles. This after-hours, unsettled vibe permeates the album.

“I think the person that probably gets into it the most is Matt,” Aaron said. He and Berninger sat together on a couch in Long Pond’s studio room, sipping from cans of LaCroix. “He would go sit on the dock in the middle of the night.”

“There’s animals everywhere,” Berninger said. “I feel safe out on that dock because I figure the coyotes aren’t going to come out on that. If they come out to me on that dock, I can knock them into the water. If they get me on land, I’m dead.”

“There’s a pack of, like, nine of them that take stuff down right on the other side,” Aaron said matter-of-factly, motioning to the far end of the pond. “We heard them take down a deer.”

Perhaps the fear of an external threat lurking outside of Long Pond’s walls contributed to a renewed sense of camaraderie inside the studio. While the making of previous albums such as 2007’s Boxer and 2010’s High Violet were, by the National’s own account, emotionally fraught affairs that nearly derailed the band, Sleep Well Beast has a relatively smooth creation story.

Going into the album, Bryce pushed to make the creative process more collaborative, like it had been in the early days up through The National’s third album, 2005’s Alligator. After that, Berninger started writing more and more by himself, or in collaboration with his wife, Carin Besser, a former fiction editor for The New Yorker. On the music side, Aaron would often finish tracks on recent National albums by himself, because “I’m a workaholic so I’d just work, work, work,” he admitted.

But at Long Pond, The National could actually physically be in the same room, which facilitated working together more than usual. Given that nobody lives full-time in the same area and everyone now has projects outside The National — Berninger is in EL VY, Scott and Bryan Devendorf are in LNZNDRF, and Aaron and Bryce Dessner compose for films and produce other artists — this clubhouse has helped to hold the band together, like a family cabin for estranged siblings.

“We creatively butt heads — there’s big personalities in the band and in the past sometimes those arguments have gotten to be, not band-threatening, but we jump near it,” Bryce told me later. “Having the space to be together [and] escape each other and go jump in the pond, it’s been a really helpful thing.”

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