Secret Meeting score: 89
Written by Dave Bertram, Mark Jackson, Philip Moss and Phil Scarisbrick
Fans of The National haven’t exactly been short of new sounds to wrap their ears around in the four-year wait between records. Albeit separately, they’ve all been rather busy.
Matt Berninger partnered with Ramona Falls’ guitarist, Brent Kopf, to form El Vy, releasing and touring the excellent, Return To The Moon. Devendorf siblings Bryan (drums) and Scott (bass) used the down time to indulge their passion for shoegaze with the LZNDRF project. Aaron Dessner produced critically acclaimed records by Irish singer/songwriter Lisa Hannigan, Scottish indie rock outfit Frightened Rabbit and British folkster, This Is The Kit, and his brother Bryce has had enormous success with numerous film scores, including his co-composition for Oscar winning film, The Revenant.
As well as individual projects, the Dessner brothers also found time to curate and produce an exquisite homage to their boyhood favourites, The Grateful Dead, through a 59-song compilation, Day Of The Dead – with many of their contemporaries (highlights including Bonnie Prince Billy, Bill Callahan, The War On Drugs and The Walkmen) contributing. They also joined ex-Grateful Dead singer, Bob Weir, on his stunning third record, Blue Mountain, and as part of his backing band on its supporting tour. Plus, as if all this wasn’t enough, there was the release of the 2013 tour film, Mistaken For Strangers, directed by Matt’s brother, Tom, and the curation of the inaugural Haven festival in Copenhagen.
But while all this extra-curricular work was going on, the group was in the process of building a new studio in Aaron Dessner’s garden, deep in the Hudson Valley. With members spread far and wide – Berninger happily settled in Brooklyn, the Devendorf brothers back in their native Cincinnati, and Bryce Dessner in Paris – they decided to invest the fruits of recent successes into a base (Long Pond Studio) where they could craft future works on their own terms, without worrying about the meter ticking.
Once all the side projects had been signed off and the paint at Long Pond was dry, the band discussed reconvening. They began by meeting up in three-week bursts to build new compositions, with Aaron then sifting through the hours of material to start crafting the songs that would make up seventh album, Sleep Well Beast.
On two occasions this year, I heard first singles from albums by acts I love and thought “this is the best song they’ve ever done.” The first was Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy; the second was Sleep Well Beast’s first single, The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.
In retrospect, it isn’t the best song they’ve ever done. In fact, it isn’t even the best song on this album. But, it is everything that a first single should be. It grabs your attention right from the opening choral intro and doesn’t let go until the sudden stop some four minutes later. Laid over the a simple, staccato piano line, is a guitar riff that feels like something John Squire would have written in his pomp, only with more self-control and Matt Berninger’s chastising lyrics feel more urgent than his usual, trademark style. Everything builds until the bridge where he concedes, ‘I can’t explain it, any other way’. He’s full of exacerbation and the most aggressive we’ve heard him since Mr. November, some 12 years earlier.
Guitar solos aren’t something we normally associate with this band, but here one takes centre stage. Aaron Dessner forcing out something that Neil Young would have built an album around at his most angry and self-indulgent. At this point, you realise that everything we accepted as being part of The National’s rulebook, is on the bonfire.
Musically in stark contrast, but, lyrically, equally as heavy – albeit covering the other thematic thread which weaves its way through the record – is album opener, Nobody Else Will Be There. An understated grower, it fades in with muted drum machine patters before Berninger questions, ‘You said we’re not so tied together. What did you mean?’ For those of you who didn’t know, the frontman writes lyrics with his wife (Carin Besser, ex-editor of The New Yorker). Otherwise, you’d be forgiven for thinking that their marriage had hit the rocks, as the song seemingly ponders fond reflections of the lustful, early days of their relationship, before kids, his bout with alcoholism, the strains of middle age and becoming a successful rock star. A theme covered further on piano ballad, Carin At The Liquor Store, as Berninger again travels back in time. This time, however, documenting his version of events from before he met his wife and the emotional strain that plucking up the courage to approach her caused him, he dumbs himself down to give his partner elevated status- ‘I was a worm, I was a creature. I’d get on the ground every second I’d see you.’
Born To Beg is a beautiful, measured love song where we once again hear the unending emotion in Berninger’s voice. Few artists can convey their feelings with their vocal delivery the way he can, and that is on display in all its glory here. Once again, it feels like a reflection on his relationship with his wife where he concedes, “I’d cry, crawl/I’d do it all/Teakettle love, I’d do anything”. His guard is down and feelings on display for our pleasure. In contrast, Guilty Party feels like an exercise in catharsis for Berninger and Besser. Focussing on the anguish of a failing marriage, they muse on the idea that these things can be allowed to linger, without reconciliation for long periods, for no reason at all. Berninger has previously told the NME, “It’s about marriage, and it’s about marriages falling apart. I’m happily married, but it’s hard- marriage is hard and my wife and I are writing the lyrics together about our own struggles and it’s difficult to write, but it’s saving my marriage. Not saving my marriage- my marriage is healthy, but it’s good for everything! And so it’s gonna be a strange record, and I’m crazy about it.”
A strange record it may be, but Sleep Well Beast is The National reimagined. Inspired by their new space, each member has seemingly been encouraged to distance themselves from one another to enjoy the normalities of family life, explore personal interests, work and socialise with other musicians, and then return refreshed to the day job. And in returning, they have created an inspired and newly developed sound which has acted to further their own collective musical legacy. In Sleep Well Beast, the group have added another gem to their collection of albums, and are rightfully considered the blueprint for modern alternative music.