The National: Sleep Well Beast (4AD)

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Day I Die
The National: Sleep Well Beast (4AD)

On the fashionable foreshore in Copenhagen at a prime spot just around the corner from the busy Nyhavn tourist-magnet area is a cluster of up-market restaurants and bars in a beautiful building with views across the water.

Among them is the Michelin-starred pair of Almanak and Studio.

We mention this because they are co-owned by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, a band whose members now are not only separated by continents and oceans but also by very different side projects (musical and otherwise).

Yet this new album Sleep Well Beast – their seventh – finds them still hitting the confident stride which many say began with High Violet (2010, Elsewhere begged to differ) and Trouble Will Find Me (three years ago, we concur with that critical consensus).

Despite their various distances, they here sound remarkably like a band with a coherent and tight vision which allows for individual expressionism within the over-arching ideology.

Constructed like “a proper album” – diverse and discrete songs with the same space which allows for dips and dives – it opens with the brooding but increasingly air-filled piano ballad Nobody Else Will Be There (which has echoes later in Born to Beg and Carin at the Liquor Store, although both have different undercurrents, electronica on the former and horns on the latter).

The guitars swell and propel the immediately engaging Day I Die which follows that opener: The driving drums of Bryan Devendorf keep it grounded while the Dessner guitars sheer off into stadium-pleasing U2 territory.

It's thrilling and when Matt Berninger speak-sings “for years I used to put my head inside the speakers . . .” you might want to do the same. And yet at its core it is a heart-breaking song of a bad separation and the escape into vodka/noise oblivion.

There are many such deep-dark lyrics here welded to menacing music (the steady pulse of the sonically disturbing pop of Walk It Back, the fractious Nick Cave-like menace of Turtleneck which soars off into the cosmos of distortion) and also gentle left-field lurches . . . as on the looped backdrop of I'll Still Destroy You which, like Day I Die, gets it propulsion and momentum from the drums.

Too many decades ago for them to even remember probably, U2 took a courageous turn from their bellicose and self-important rock with the albums Achtung Baby and Zooropa (and less so the third in the trilogy, Pop).

At this point the National seem to have negotiated the spaces in between rock-familiar and art-innovation to create a body of work which allows for the experimentalism of the Dessners, the soul-baring lyrics of Berninger who sounds damaged by love rather than elevated by it and the requirements of an audience which wants alt-intellect, expects rock liberation and knows the landscape from The Boss (Dark Side of the Gym here) through to Tom Waits and U2.

And still is happy to have its heart broken.

The National are here to oblige.

The National play the Villa Maria Winery in Auckland on February 25 2018. Ticketing details here.

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