I’d honestly be happy to drown myself in concept albums for the rest of my days, if every one continued to sound like The Nationals new Sleep Well Beast. A seeps under your skin and stays there kind of painful, it’s completely intoxicating and I still can’t get it out of my head – cathartic chords, it’s eerie electronic noise constructs a narrative of what frontman Matt Berninger describes as “marriages falling apart”. To lay yourself so cleanly open as Matt Berninger and co-writer Carin Besser have, is obviously what gives Sleep Well Beast it’s intense introspection. It isn’t just a break up album, it’s us listening in on Matt and Carin negotiate salvation in their own marriage. It’s the best and worst kind of fly on the wall situation.
The dynamic movement between songs, means there isn’t really a weak link in the twelve track album. It’s a conversation where every word, chord and line is thoughtful and purposeful, it moves back and forth through questions, answers and confusion. It takes us through every room in their house, perfectly broken and equally messy. The visual-like element that the album emits is almost certainly down to guitarist Bryce Dessner’s recent work on the score for acclaimed film The Revenant. The albums rich complexity and layered dexterity creates a cinematic experience which lingers on after every last chord.
Although I like how the album sits as a whole, there are songs that do undoubtedly stand out, however at no expense of the others. Intro track ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ successful sets the soft yet gruelling tone of the album, and the songs first piano chords stay with you throughout. The broken lyrics’ poetry is a whisper into some vast abyss with Berninger and Carin uttering ‘nobody else will be there’ on repeat, calling to each other between two walls: ‘can’t we just go home’. Track two which ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ effortlessly falls into is ‘Day I Die’ which is a personal favourite for its inexorable guitar tone that lingers throughout. The track with my favourite lyrics from the album is ‘Walk It Back’ in which Berninger begins with the effortless but tormented lines ‘I’m always thinking about useless things / I’m always checking out’ subtly guided by the songs soft melody, it moves into lines like ‘I only take up a little of this collapsing space’ and ‘along the tracks / my own body in my arms / but I won’t collapse’.
Personal favourite ‘Empire Line’ is a dark howl of a dream: ‘you’ve been sleeping for miles / so what did you see’. The building drums and effortless space takes you across the ‘miles’ that Berninger negotiates and sings of. It’s his one last request ‘can’t you find a way / you are in this too’ and it breaks my heart every time. But amidst the devastation is some kind of resolution, the track is uplifting in its resilience, it’s not giving up despite it all. Other notable songs are ‘The System Only Dreams When In Darkness’, soft lullaby ‘Born To Beg’ and ‘Guilty Party’.
In comparison to The Nationals existing discography it definitely arrives with a more fragmented vision. Space fills up between melodies with Matt Berninger’s usual poetics broken down to something more hollow, yet it’s a new kind of poetry in his voice, a dying beauty collapsing in on itself.
It sucker punched me, devastatingly, but that’s exactly the reason I immerse myself in it more. Take me to the Empire Line, leave me there and let me listen to this album for the rest of forever.