Last month I wrote a profile of The National that detailed the making of their latest album, Sleep Well Beast, which came out on Friday. The band worked at guitarist Aaron Dessner’s studio in upstate New York. Here’s what I wrote:
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.
What else is there to say about yet another great National album? Plenty, in fact. I reached out to Jayson Greene, formerly of Pitchfork and Wondering Sound, to talk about how The National manages to evolve within the relatively narrow confines of a fixed identity. We both agree that Sleep Well Beast extends the band’s run of first-rate albums, but what exactly makes this record different from the others, while also reiterating the National’s established themes and sound?