This is the question any National fan with a crumb of self-awareness must answer. The indie band from Brooklyn makes sad music that cannot be denied. Their mopey music is often transcendent: the National's 2007 album, Boxer, is an anxious masterpiece about being an alienated young adult. However, in the group's last two releases, High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me, the National lost their emotional core. They continued to make sad songs with beautiful arrangements and heady lyrics, because that's what the National does, but their despair ceased to be persuasive. Listeners wondered why, really, members of the National were this sad.
They became indie rock sadboys. For the sadboy, and for the past two National records, melancholy isn't contingent on a real struggle, whether with mental health or human relationships. For the sadboy, misery is nothing more than aesthetic virtue, a mask worn to look cool.
So, as fans awaited the band's first release in four years, many were desperately hoping: Please, don't let this be a sadboy record. And, thankfully, Sleep Well Beast is anything but.
That isn't to say the album isn't sad; it's very sad, but for a reason. Throughout Sleep Well Beast, two figures haunt frontman Matt Berninger: his wife, Carin Besser, and President Trump. As Berninger wrestles with these two vastly different individuals, he turns out the best lyrical material of his career.
The National has never been a great political band. The members' bourgeois Brooklyn origins have long prevented them from tapping into the rage necessary for sharp political music.
But Trump's election has given the National the caffeine jolt needed to make some pissed off musical screeds. On "Turtleneck," Berninger growls about "just another man, in shitty suits, everybody's cheering for" who "must be the genius we've been waiting years for." And on "Walk it Back," the National features an Orwellian Karl Rove quote, continuing Kendrick Lamar's excellent trend of sampling right wing creeps.
But on Sleep Well Beast, Trump is only a supporting actor to Berninger's wife. The record's central struggle is trying to hold together a failing marriage. In exploring this theme, Berninger, who writes lyrics with his wife, shows more emotional range as a writer than ever before. He's taunting and cruel on "Day I Die," nostalgic on "Carin at the Liquor Store" and defeated on "Guilty Party." In just under an hour, Berninger expertly sketches the dark complexities of a marriage before resolving, at the tail end of the album, to "keep you in love with me for a while."
Matt Berninger's lyrical reinvigoration is mirrored in the music behind him. On Sleep Well Beast, the musical arrangements transcend the sadboy oeuvre of the past two National records. In past records, Bryce and Aaron Dessner wrote songs drowning in melancholy, the musical equivalent of swimming through molasses. But on this album, the brothers Dessner produce tunes that feel vivid and alive, all while maintaining the complexity that makes the group a rewarding listen.
The guitars are louder, faster and more aggressive than anything the National has released since 2005's "Alligator." "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" features a neurotic guitar solo from Aaron Dessner — an endangered species within the National's discography — and "Day I Die" is held together by a looping arena rock riff that could easily exist on a U2 album. Track after track proves the National are, in fact, a rock 'n' roll band.
Sleep Well Beast has somber ballads, too. But instead of goey and soporific songs like "Pink Rabbits," from Trouble Will Find Me, we have the crisp "Carin at the Liquor Store." And whenever slow songs risk becoming drowsy, Bryan Devendorf's propulsive drumming rescues them.
Throughout this review, I've been somewhat hard on the past two National releases. Don't get me wrong, those records are some of my absolute favorites. Ever. But Sleep Well Beast cures all the flaws of those albums with precision and grace. The result is one of the best National albums in a decade and one of the best rock releases of the year. Indie rock sadboys, the National are no longer.