If I’ve learned one thing from the National, it’s that all good things take time.
For going on five years, around the time of 2013’s desperate and haunting “Trouble Will Find Me,” Matt Berninger’s mahogany voice has been part of my mental furniture: He’s been there for innumerable road trips, house parties, and long walks with the music low in my headphones as sense slowly emerges from sound and the lyrics bleed out of the woodwork.
I awaited the arrival of the National’s seventh album like the visit of a dear friend.
I’d anticipated the date since this spring: Sept. 8, “Sleep Well Beast” and I would engage in another installment of trademark nostalgia, middle-aged Midwestern ennui, and melodies that roll through the back of my head until they’re part of the hardwiring. What I got last Friday was that and more: in sound and in sense, the voice of the National has matured.
“Sleep Well Beast” has been called modern, hopeful, and upbeat, a step forward built on electronic beats and a sense that there is something more to these stories than the National’s abiding allegiance to heartbreak and missed opportunities, rumbling over one mournful, rolling bass line after another. On this album, lead singer Matt Berninger’s voice is closer to the microphone; he is honest and direct and ready to think about moving on.
This will take some time to unpack; maybe as long as it will take to understand.
The National’s music collects dust and stories; it’s a house of memory. It takes two hands to count the times I’ve sung to the album Trouble Will Find Me and grinned like a fool and felt foolish and real and full of regret: “I should live in salt for leaving you behind.”
It’s the kind of music that comes on at a house party, and you catch eyes with the few people who understand. You clasp your hands over your chest and say melodramatically, “Oh, my poor heart.” Regardless of the angst and the hopelessness, it’s the music that makes you feel things, because too many times, it’s created the atmosphere that made it possible to feel things.
The National is all about the past tense and the way the present is haunted by it. Here it is in “Santa Clara,” from the Virginia EP: “They’re gonna be cool happy genius heroes; I’m going to miss them so much.”
Why is there this strange feeling that the new album has only shifted to an odd nostalgia for the future: “The day I die, where will we be?” Why, in the scratchy radio static of the opening bars, am I stuck still in the threshold? “Why are we still out here holding our coats? … Goodbyes always take us half an hour. Can’t we just go home?”
As if it has shaken itself out of its own second thoughts, that’s when the album starts moving forward: “Walk it Back” opens with an unprecedented synthesized bass line that proves right the Wall Street Journal’s optimistic reviewer: they’re now electronic, contemporary, modern. And yet: “Nothing I change changes anything; I won’t let it ruin my head.”
Some see this step forward as a spiritual one even more than an experiential one: their promotional website is called American Mary, and references to the Beast get pretty Serpent in the Garden pretty fast. But it’s complicated: Who’s the mother here? What sort of salvation are we talking about? What Beasts has Matt put to rest?
The song samples a speech that is stuck in the recent past, as well: “We’re history’s actors…” It mumbles its way on, like listening to the radio through the wall in someone else’s apartment. A message of deliverance almost overheard, a lesson of personal growth almost learned: “Apparently that was written on a whiteboard with a red sharpie in the Roosevelt bedroom, sometime around Christmas 2007. Yeah, so I can’t stay.”
2007: The memories are still so close. The music again, as Matt leaves the house only to think of what he has left behind: “I can’t stay and I can’t come back / I’ll just keep awake / And I won’t react / I’ll walk through Lawrencetown / Along the tracks / My own body in my arms / But I won’t collapse / … If I’m going to get back to you, someday / I’ll need your light.”
I didn’t know it was time to move on until the National told me to. It’s the voice of maturity, of turning from the lit window and walking home to where, like it or not, I live now. It’s time to put the beasts and the memories to rest. But for now, a final parting glance through the window to imprint this on my memory, to the tune of “I’ll Still Destroy You”: “I’m gonna miss those long nights with the windows open / I keep re-reading the same lines always up at 5 a.m. every morning / Like a baby / It’s just the lights coming on.”
With the National, there’s always space for doubt. That’s what the music is for, and “Guilty Party” promises it’s nobody’s fault in what is perhaps the most hopeful moment in the album: “I say your name. I say I’m sorry … It’s nobody’s fault, no guilty party. I’ve just got nothing, nothing left to say. It all, all catches up to me all the time.”
I study poetry, and as I think through Matt’s lyrics, I come back to a theory from one of the wisest writers I know: that poetry is about making clichés ring true again. Music is about that too, and art: finding a way to live when the old stories and the old metaphors don’t seem to fit anymore.
I don’t know how “Sleep Well Beast” will catch up with me. But maybe it’s all there on the album cover: one window lit on the side of a wooden house, a group of friends getting up from dinner. The sun is gone, and so is the color; Sleep Well Beast is a twilight world, and it’s the new soundtrack for walking with hands in pockets, peeking in the windows of lives that may have once been my own.
“Sleep Well Beast” is about moving on, and how that too takes time and a long glance backward.