If the age-old concept that sadness has a physical presence, a sort of heaviness that weighs on your shoulders and could sonically manifest itself, the result would probably sound a lot like The National. Their songs seem bent on pressing down on you in the same way that pop music wants to lift you up; the piano and bass draw rich, long chords over you like a blanket, synthesizers and strings emit hauntingly mournful moans and lead singer Matt Berninger’s signature baritone is the vocal equivalent of a defeated, weary sigh. Decidedly sorrowful since their 2001 debut, The National seems the rightful inheritor of that “Depressing Indie Rock Band” label that Coldplay has seemed so desperate to escape.
But during their creative peak, which began with 2007’s “Boxer” and has continued with their fourth-straight fantastic album, “Sleep Well Beast,” The National manages to avoid becoming those clichéd sad sacks, largely because of the complexity with which they approach the subject of relationships. Even though the song titles throughout the discography — “Sorrow,” “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” “Graceless,” “Little Faith,” “Terrible Love,” the list goes on — are thoroughly depressing, Berninger has crafted a nuanced approach to love, rather than a simple “my girl left me” mentality. His persona’s difficult and strained relationships (in real life, Berninger is happily married) are best expressed in “Don’t Swallow the Cap:” “I have only two emotions/Careful fear and dead devotion/I can’t get the balance right.”
“Sleep Well Beast” finds The National expanding upon their signature sound with the help of heavy electronics. Percussionist Bryan Devendorf colors his always-stellar rhythms with loops and drum machines, and warbling synths consistently clash with biting guitar. This is easily their most adventurous album, as “Day I Die” and “Turtleneck” bring a dark velocity to their typically laid-back rock approach and “Walk it Back,” “I’ll Still Destroy You” and the title track dive into some surprisingly experimental electro sounds. It’s refreshing to hear a group that typically favors refinement over progression take so many risks in a single record.
Alongside these welcome excursions are some of the group’s most poignant, resonant ballads yet. “Carin at the Liquor Store,” named after Berninger’s wife and songwriting partner, is a bitter retrospective featuring lines like “I wasn’t a catch, I wasn’t a keeper . . . So blame it on me/I really don’t care/It’s a foregone conclusion,” and album highlight “Guilty Party” finds the married couple imagining the dissolution of said matrimony. About whether or not such dark topics are true to life, Berninger has said, “It’s confessional but it’s not autobiographical.” The National’s songs are “alternate realities” in which our deepest insecurities and fears play out as tragic tales of dissolution and solitude.
Then there’s “Dark Side of the Gym,” which continues The National’s tradition of including a love song and disguising amongst the others. But unlike last album’s “I Need My Girl,” the dark textures of which make it indistinguishable from the other tracks, “Dark Side of the Gym” takes a guitar line filled with 1950s twang and puts it over some of their warmest instrumentation ever. The chorus — “I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while” — is Berninger at his most romantic.
The National still carry with them the sound of sadness. Yet they also retain a humanity alongside their phenomenal songwriting ability that makes listening to each track in a row a strange pleasure rather than a drag. It would be easy for The National to fall victim to either song-to-song sameness or irredeemable pessimism, but “Sleep Well Beast” is as resonant and vital as any of their other work.