Uproxx’s Steven Hyden has written in depth about his own “Five-Albums Test,” which essentially states that making five excellent albums in a row elevates an artist to a sort of elite status. Few artists pass the (highly subjective) test, but it is a useful tool for discussing music, in that it equates consistency with endurance, and requires artists achieve both to attain so-called greatness. The National undoubtedly joined this club with their latest album, Sleep Well Beast, but the case of The National still doesn’t seem like a perfect fit when put up against other similarly long-lasting creative peaks.
That’s because seven LPs into their career, The National seem to still be getting better. Now, before you freak out reading that statement, let me qualify. No, I don’t personally think that Sleep Well Beast is the best The National album, nor would I ever claim that their more recent output holds a higher place of esteem in the musical canon than the album widely believed to be their classic, 2007’s Boxer. But there is more to a band’s greatness than just their most beloved album, and The National have never taken their foot off the gas in determination that they could top whatever came before. And at this, they’ve managed to completely succeed.
Last week, The National performed two nights at the Hollywood Palladium, a return visit to the city that frontman Matt Berninger now calls home. This came after headlining the much larger Hollywood Bowl last October, just a month after releasing their predictably acclaimed album, Sleep Well Beast. In the time between the performances, The National had thrown their own music festival, launched a streaming service, and won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album after previously losing in the same category for their 2013 album, Trouble Will Find Me. Even in a festival landscape that has largely moved away from rock and roll music, The National ascended to some of their best placement ever at fests like Lollapalooza and the upcoming Austin City Limits. And though they still don’t have a No. 1 album yet in their career, Beast did open at a personal best for the band, No. 2.
These achievements do not define the band, but they are important notes when considering both how the public views them and how they might view themselves. For me, a thirty-something indie rock fan that felt like a whole world was opening to me with the rise of Pitchfork’s influence in the aughts, nothing will ever touch the 2005 effort Alligator and the aforementioned Boxer. Those albums shone so brightly for me that it took years after 2010’s High Violet for me to come to terms with the band’s star turn, to realize that my reaction to new National albums was less a reflection on their quality and more just the result of the fact that I was getting older and clinging tightly to the albums that I associated with my own youth. For me, anything would be a disappointment after Boxer, even if it turned out that High Violet was brilliant in its own right.