Music

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

The RX is Uproxx Music’s stamp of approval for the best albums, songs, and music stories throughout the year. Inclusion in this category is the highest distinction we can bestow, and signals the most important music being released throughout the year. The RX is the music you need, right now.

“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.”

“There wasn’t a whole lot of room for real democracy. But I think there’s more democracy now,” Aaron maintained. “Bryce this time wanted it to be more open and collaborative, so he and I actually wrote stuff together in a room. Or I would write stuff and let him add to it, or vice versa, and not be sensitive about that. The songs are better because of that. That’s a good thing.”

The power dynamic in The National is typically discussed in terms of Berninger (the hard-drinking rock and roll guy) and Aaron Dessner (the sensible yet obsessive composer). But the push-pull between Aaron and Bryce is just as crucial, and ironing out any lingering kinks in their working relationship appears to have been a crucial aspect of the Sleep Well Beast sessions. National records usually start with conversations between the brothers, which Berninger refers to as “pillow talk.” But Aaron’s willingness to relinquish control allowed for Bryce to flex his own compositional muscles, which paid off in the otherworldly orchestrations embedded in songs like “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” and the stormy “I’ll Still Destroy You.”

“The band actually was able to push into some other places this time because there was a collective sense that we knew what the last four records were,” Aaron said. “We are aware of what they mean to people, aware of how hard they were to make. We were aware of those kinds of songs, we know how they operate. So, there was a conscious decision to actually get into some different processes. Not just how we were writing, but the actual software and audio processing, and technique involved in recording it.”

As for Berninger, his initial ideas for lyrics were drafted at home, at night, as his young daughter slept, which necessitated singing softly into a microphone, a process that contributed to the whispery, claustrophobic sound of Sleep Well Beast. Similar to how the arc of Alligator, Boxer, High Violet, and 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me trace Berninger’s life from swinging bachelorhood in post-9/11 New York to fatherhood amid the anxieties of middle age, the songs on Sleep Well Beast appear to comment on the next natural stage of life: Marital ennui.

“I thought that this would all work out after a while / Now you’re saying that I’m asking for too much attention,” Berninger sings in “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness,” the album’s superbly smoldering first single, which recently topped Billboard‘s Adult Alternative Songs chart. “Why are you hiding from me?” he demands later in the song. “We’re in a different kind of thing now — all night you’re talking to God.”

Of course, with Berninger, it can be hard to pin down precise meanings. As always, his lyrics freely mix the sublime with the silly, the philosophical with the conversational, and funny asides with heartbreaking revelations. One of my favorite lyrics is from “The Dark Side Of The Gym,” a country-tinged ballad that moseys at the pace of a moonlit stroll. A seemingly straight-forward plea to “keep you in love with me for a while,” the song includes one of Berninger’s patented bits of quotable whimsy toward the end: “I have dreams of anonymous castratti, singing to us from the trees.”

How in the world did eunuchs wind up in a love song? When I suggested that the imagery evokes a fear of emasculation, Berninger waved it off, going on a lengthy rant about the oppression of women and gays by the Catholic Church.

“All of our love songs are political,” he said. “How can that not constantly be a part of your processing? Every love story has to be colored by the trauma that we’ve been going through politically.”

The most overtly political song on Sleep Well Beast is the blistering “Turtleneck,” which is also the loudest track to appear on a National album since “Mr. November” from Alligator. Berninger wrote the lyrics — which reference “just another man in shitty suits that everybody’s cheering for,” an obvious nod to you know who — the day after the 2016 presidential election, screaming over the most abrasive part of a demo that also berthed the guitar pyrotechnics in “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness.”

“I was just, like, venting to this track,” Berninger said. “The whole thing started at 10 and we just kept it at 10.”

For the most part, however, politics is a subliminal presence on Sleep Well Beast, another disruptive psychic force that tears at preexisting fissures in personal relationships, the social fabric, and even one’s own sobriety. (Many of the songs, again in typical Berninger fashion, reference clandestine liquor and marijuana stashes.) The most novel iteration of Berninger’s “all of our love songs are political” idea occurs in “Walk It Back,” a creeping, synth-heavy rumination on romantic paranoia that takes an unexpected turn toward the geopolitical.

“I only take up a little of the collapsing space / I better cut this off / Don’t want to fuck it up,” Berninger sings in a jittery monotone. Then, a distorted voice recites a quote, later credited to Karl Rove, from a 2004 New York Times Magazine article by political journalist Ron Suskind: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.” In the context of the song, it’s a chilling commentary on both American imperialism and the suffocating insularity of a long-term relationship.

“I’m not saying you have to write about politics to be an artist, but a love song can be very political,” Berninger said of Sleep Well Beast. “A song about a woman, anything about a woman, any piece of art about a woman is political. Because women in America are oppressed. So, when artists say, ‘I don’t tiptoe into politics,’ I’m like, ‘Well, then, you’re making french fries.'”

This bravado might seem out of character for The National, a quintessential underdog band whose latecomer status was emphasized again this year in Meet Me In The Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s acclaimed oral history of the ’00s New York rock scene that lavishes most of its attention on glamorous outfits like the Strokes and Interpol. But the book does includes a memorable anecdote from Berninger about The National walking through an early-’00s Interpol photo shoot in order to get to its practice space, an incident he calls “humiliating but also motivating.”

While nobody in The National brought up the book directly during our interview, it seems as though they’ve been reflecting lately on their own history, being just two years removed from the 20th anniversary of the band’s founding in 1999.

“We would listen to [Interpol] and be like, ‘Oh shit, they really got their act together,’ you know?” the National’s soft-spoken bassist Scott Devendorf recalled.

“They have suits,” Bryce added with a sardonic twinkle. He later took a good-natured swipe at the Strokes: “We didn’t go to, like, Swiss boarding schools.”

“We’ve never been the cool band,” Devendorf said. “There was a lot of fashion that just escaped us. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to belong but we didn’t even have the ego on us to expect that we could.”

Devendorf recalled an early show opening for The Walkmen in Boston, “our big break” that in the end only reiterated The National’s outsider status.

“They added their friends to the bill so we were playing before the doors were open. Shit!” he said, laughing.

After existing for so long in the shadow of flashier if also more self-destructive bands, the members of The National seem to finally be feeling their oats. While the Strokes and Interpol inspire pangs of nostalgia for aging scenesters pining for their coke-fueled glory years back in the early ’00s, The National endures as one of the only bands from that time capable of producing work on par with their classic-era output. When I talked to Berninger in 2013, he still seemed in awe of the Strokes’ aura. But this time, he downplayed the band’s NYC connection, re-contextualizing The National as a product of a thriving Ohio music scene in the ’90s.

“Our history always starts in the background of The Strokes. [But] southern Ohio was way cooler than Brooklyn and New York, music-wise, in the ’90s,” Berninger said. “New York City was intimidating, but the rock scene wasn’t, after being in a tiny room with Brainiac playing, and watching Tim Taylor do what he was doing. And Greg Dulli, and Bob Pollard, all of them, Kim Deal — unhinged, brilliant, crazy weirdos. A lot of shit you would see in New York was heavy on style, but light on singularity, true singular personality.

“There’s a lot of time where nothing felt unique in New York until the Strokes,” he continued. “That’s when we kicked it into high gear. The first several years of us doing stuff was trying to figure how we mold all our different record collections into something that made us sound like us. And that took a while.”

With Sleep Well Beast, The National has succeeded at sounding like us while also diverging significantly from past National records. It is destined to be described as a “slow burn” in the manner of all National albums, though this particular album’s low hum of spiritual terror feels specific to our current moment. The uncertain quiet of a rural night, the unexpected pitfalls of a long-term relationship, the frayed status of our national union — all of these elements played a role in shaping Sleep Well Beast.

The album title isn’t descriptive but rather a prayer to keep all lethal creatures at bay. At the very least, Sleep Well Beast feels like a safe harbor to hide out in for a while. After all, these days, if they get you on land, you’re dead.

Sleep Well Beast is out 9/8 via 4AD. Pre-order it here.

Around The Web

×