New sounds for a winning formula

By Sergio Ariza

For The National it took them three records to discover their true voice, but when they did, in 2005 with Alligator, they found the perfect formula to fuse their polished, melancholic, mature and elegant music with the pessimistic lyrics and baritone voice of their singer Matt Berninger. For the following records, they perfected said formula on what could be the 3 most brilliant efforts of their trajectory, Boxer, High Violet, and Trouble Will Find Me. Now they have just released Sleep Well Beast, their 7th record and that magic formula added new things trying to avoid repetition, with a bigger electronic print, and with guitar solos. Finally they have got another remarkable album to add to one of the most interesting careers of the 21st century.   

The players in The National are already in their 40s, and it shows on a record that speaks of long term relationship problems, Berninger has collaborated with his wife Carin Besser on lyrics, and they put out a record that seems to speak of breaking up. So much so that the singer had to come out and say that his relationship was going perfectly.  However, as we were saying, this is a mature record, a tag that has followed the band since the beginning, as  Berninger is someone  who seemed to be 40 when he was just 20. So, as it was to be expected , unsurprisingly, having matured left them feeling great and ready to deliver a big collection of calm, bittersweet songs. There are those who want to call them boring but that’s just because they only listened to them once. As the main composer Aaron Dessner so well put it, his songs are like ‘ugly ducklings’ that seem strange, and over time, turn into beautiful swans. This is because the band usually skirts simple arrangements and chorus’, making their music quite a bit more intricate than usual.

On this record there are various examples of this, and Dessner has decided to lean heavier on synthesizers and other technical elements without diminishing the band’s strength, beginning with the incredible drummer Bryan Devendorf, who is still the musical driving force.  But in spite of it all, the Dessners have given more weight to the band to the point of including solos on some of the songs, something quite strange up to now. Perhaps the influence of his beautiful homage to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead had something to do with it, although his improvs are much more concise than the long winding trips Garcia used to get into. The best examples of this are in the cathartic solo of the single, The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness, where Aaron Dessner lights up with his ‘63 Jazzmaster through a Fender Champ amplifier from the late 50s, or the weird notes that come from his Telecaster  from the late 60s in the title song. Of course his twin brother Bryce also has his moments to show his prowess in the lovely Carin At The Liquor Store.

But beyond these new touches, the old formula still shows its worth on such intense songs as The Day I Die, Guilty Party, and Dark Side of the Gym, in which there’s a very 50s instrumental change that is simply gorgeous. Yet there’s time to try other things as in Turtleneck, the song that sounds most rock, where the Dessners cut loose from their previous path, or those electronic touches in Walk It Back and Sleep Well Beast, the album’s closing number. 

All in all, it is a record that shows time well invested, four years since Trouble Will Find Me, and the search for new approaches to stay fresh and avoid stagnation, staying in the game with a new winning formula that has proven absolutely long lasting.