Everyone I know has been talking trash about the National's seventh album, Sleep Well Beast. It doesn't matter that it's been generally well received by critics. Pitchfork gave the record an 8 out of 10. Four out of five seems to be the average star count everywhere else. But my cohort greeted the album with a shrug. It snowed but it didn't stick. Or else I heard, "Yeah, it's kinda good, but that one song really sucks."
Let's get this out of the way: That one song does really suck. It's called "Turtleneck," and it descends from the band's line of half-assed country songs, a tradition of theirs that goes all the way back to "Pay for Me" from their self-titled debut. A similar-sounding approach pops up again on Trouble Will Find Me, with the song "I Need My Girl," and then reemerges on Beast like a prepubescent crack in the voice of an otherwise mature album.
"This is so embarrassing," vocalist Matt Berninger sings in faux distress. It's like the lyrics know the song is bad.
Other than that, Beast gives us what the National have always given us: the musical equivalent of reveling in anxiety-depression, a mental condition common among urbanites. On the record—and most likely at their shows at the Paramount on November 28 and 29—Bryan Devendorf's busy drums provide a foundation of nervous energy, Berninger's melancholy mumbles croon over the top, and then the twins (Aaron and Bryce Dessner) command the guitars to flourish in fits or else swell to bursting to release all the pent-up angst. In keeping up with the times, the Dessners incorporated into this record subtle, intricately arranged electronic sounds, but they didn't mess too much with the general formula.
That is, apparently, everyone's problem: Nothing new here. To which I say: Well, what about the lyrics? The lyrics are new! And some of them, I would argue, satisfy Wallace Stevens's requirement that poetry "resist the intelligence / almost successfully." Take the pre-chorus for the single "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness." On the personal level, it's a lyrical collage of a one-sided argument about an infidelity. On the political level, it's about money in politics and the country under Trump.
The whole album plays with that same dynamic, especially in "Walk It Back," which goes so far as to give us a prescription for our current age. As Berninger sings, nothing we change changes anything. Therefore: "Until everything is less insane / I'm mixing weed with wine."
Any given song on a National album, it's true, has a corollary on another National album. Beast's "I'll Still Destroy You," for instance, is driven by the same nervously lackadaisical rhythm, charmingly conspiratorial lyrics, and morning-light tone you'll find in Trouble Will Find Me's "Humiliation," and then earlier in High Violet's "Lemonworld," and earlier still in Boxer's "Guest Room," which has its origins in Alligator's "Looking for Astronauts."
But I stand in amazement at their consistency, and I applaud a band that would so thoroughly resist—for 17 years—the great American impulse for massive change and "innovation," while continuing to produce one strong album after the next.