BEST OF 2017: 3. The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’

As an opener, ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ suggests that the languid mid-pace favoured on ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is now the norm for a band previously capable of working themselves up into a twitching frenzy. However, not only does this track possess some lovely textures and a loose, spacious mood that rewards close listening, but it also fails to fully represent what follows. That 2013 effort remains a wonderful record which, as the 2017 review narrative has declared must be stated, now attracts criticism for being too polished and one-paced. It’s not true, but it did lack the spasming riffs and fizzing, writhing vocals of Matt Berninger at his most effervescent.

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By the time ‘Day I Die’ has clattered into view as the second track, any such retrograde anxieties will be appeased. It bristles with a ragged, screeching, monumentally catchy riff that is repeatedly let fly across Bryan Devendorf’s unstoppable drums. There’s plenty of musical light and shade on this record, even if the majority of the lyrics are looking at the complexities of middle-age discontentment, when the familiar becomes jarringly so. “Forget it. Nothing I change changes anything,” sings Berninger on ‘Walk It Back’, while ‘Guilty Party’ deploys some skittering electronics below stately piano as our narrator, and it does feel a little like living in a Richard Yates novel at times, tell us “I know it’s not working, I’m no holiday” and “We just got nothing, nothing left to say.” Just as, seven years ago, I wrote about the joys of wallowing in the mood of this band’s music, there is still an oddly enveloping quality to these desperately sad snapshots.

The Carin of ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’ is Berninger’s wife and, it transpires, co-lyricist. Fact, fiction, bit of both? Who knows? As someone who spent much of Christmas Day and Boxing Day rebuffing attempts to be told the marital affairs of various actors and presenters by relatives who spend far too much time browsing MailOnline, I have only marginal interest in the specificity of these things. As much as I love a decent music biography, I’m not sure I need to know which aspects are mutated and which are verbatim to adore the barely vertical, on and off the beat vocal performance that seems to tumble from Berninger’s mouth on this song. It’s utterly, utterly glorious and not even being dedicated to Morrissey on Later… can spoil it for me.

The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ was a very fine way to tease the album’s release, with its early signs of the almost mischievous horns that pepper these songs, a righteous guitar break that elevates the track towards its oddly euphoric conclusion and a chorus you could use as a landmark in heavy weather. And then there’s ‘Turtleneck’, which feels deliriously primal amongst so much carefully layered music, with raspy, shouty vocals and everything-turned-up-to-ten garage rock.

There’s plenty more besides, such as the shimmering ache of ‘Born To Beg’ and the glittering but gnarly musical collisions of ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, on what is a truly impressive step forward. You’ll always have those people who tell you that they’ve been putting out the same record for a decade, but that’s their loss. Indeed, this is arguably the biggest evolution of their sound since 2007’s ‘Boxer’, but I’m glad I didn’t go anywhere near it for reviewing purposes. It benefits from time and a variety of circumstances, slowly unpacking itself before you. It is one of the records of 2017 to which I have turned most frequently and which has proved hard to shift from in-car systems and the turntable alike. Always, always worth the wait, The National have yet again delivered a record that toys with your feelings with the same dexterity as some of the world’s finest writers.

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