Music review: The National's offers glimmer of hope in Sleep Well Beast

There is a beautiful ballad called National on True Care, the latest record by James Vincent McMorrow, where the Irishman reminisces about listening to the said American band with his beloved on road trips: "We spend our nights listening to The National/That was special/Even though your car was small/You said your favourite song/Was the one about death/I said every single one's like that."

The lyrics capture the legendary, sad-sack mythology of the Brookynvia-Ohio indie rockers, preternaturally middle-aged in a rock scene that usually privileges youth over ageing.

Over six albums, The National obsessed over death, disappointment, desperate ends and getting into all sorts of trouble, from the perspective of a world-weary, bespectacled and professorial-looking frontman. They do not look like rockers, but they sure do rock the status quo.

Whether by choice or luck, Sleep Well Beast, their seventh missive and first since 2013's Trouble Will Find Me, is particularly timely. It is still about death, or terminal decline - but this time, it is both excruciatingly personal as well as, well, national.

On Walk It Back, an antsy, angstridden thesis on anxiety, foreverrestless vocalist Matt Berninger keeps on walking, "along the tracks/ My own body in my arms", over electronic twitching and a burping bassline. Mid-song, he is interrupted by a sample of a speech allegedly by Mr Karl Rove, the deputy chief of staff to former American president George W. Bush.

The latter intones: "People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community."



    The National


    4/5 stars

He adds: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality" - an ominous presage of the alternative facts that now pepper current politics.

The song also provides a fitting bookend to Fake Empire from their 2007 opus Boxer, where singer Matt Berninger laments a self-delusional, Bush-era America wallowing in its hedonism.

Not everything is writ large, but even then, The National have a gift of telegraphing intimate pain - like a therapeutic session, as those who witnessed them singing unplugged among the audience at their 2011 Esplanade gig can testify to.

Carin At The Liquor Store, co-written by Berninger's wife Carin Besser, is a dissection of a marriage unstitched and salvaged. "I wasn't a catch, I wasn't a keeper/I was walking around like I was the one who found dead John Cheever," Berninger sings, his patient baritone gently fraying, as the piano keys just sound slightly, and perfectly, off.

Like the best of the desperadoes, The National may complain, but they harbour a glimmer of hope.

The dreamy closer and title track alludes to a beast that waits until the youth wake up. "We leave our saviours wrapped around the necks of new machines," he sings, an ambivalent harbinger of a future that rests with the next generation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2017, with the headline 'Obsession with death ends with glimmer of hope'. Print Edition | Subscribe