Erudite and highly capable musicians, the members of the National dedicated the years since their 2013 album, “Trouble Will Find Me,” to a range of independent projects: EL VY, singer-composer
delightful pop collaboration with
of Ramona Falls; the twin brothers Aaron and
broody score for the crime-thriller film “Transpecos”; the full band’s musical contributions to “Day of the Dead,” a 59-track multi-artist tribute to the Grateful Dead co-produced by the Dessners and
; and Bryce’s classically minded compositions performed by the Copenhagen Philharmonic, Eighth Blackbird, Kronos Quartet and Sō Percussion; among many other ventures.
Inspired by their adventures, when they reconvened to write and record, they found that they were eager to alter their familiar sound of traditional organic rock in support of Mr. Berninger’s baritone and his lyrical storytelling. Mr. Berninger said the quintet had realized they had been working with “a limited palette.” “We had been more in a corner than we thought,” he added when we spoke by phone last week.
The resulting “Sleep Well Beast” (4AD), out on Friday, is unlike any of the National’s previous six albums and is well removed from indie rock’s orthodoxy. Its foundation is propulsive electronic music composed by the Dessners, who previewed some of the new sounds at an October 2016 festival in Berlin in which about 80 eclectic musicians collaborated on spontaneous and often experimental performances. The presence of Mr. Berninger’s voice, snarling electric guitars, supple bass and pounding drums in conjunction with the complex electronica places the album at an intersection of the new and familiar. “It feels more reckless,” Aaron told me when I called him at home in Copenhagen. “We were interested in melting away some of the barriers between genres.”
Most tracks on “Sleep Well Beast” utilize a synthesized substructure from start to end. “I’ll Still Destroy You” rises from a simple beat created on Aaron’s laptop; when it recedes, a folk guitar and what sounds like a marimba slide under Mr. Berninger’s voice. “Empire Line” also opens with an electronic pulse that’s joined by drummer Bryan Devendorf, who excels throughout the album, and lush strings sweep in as Mr. Berninger shifts easily between singing and speaking the tale. A lovely take on a 1950s-style stroll, “Dark Side of the Gym” features synthetic sounds flitting about the midrange; after a deft modulation, orchestral strings appear to provide a thrilling exit.
The National rocks hard on the album, even within the electronic context. In the rumbling “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” a stinging repeated guitar riff suggests the instrument will be used as decoration only, but there is a blistering solo that elevates the track. “Turtleneck” is booming rock in which
bass locks in with his younger brother’s kick drum and toms.
The National composed the new disc as it had past recordings—with the Dessners recording instrumental sketches and submitting them to the full group for development. Working on his own or with the aid of his wife, Carin—the National is nothing if not a family affair—Mr. Berninger crafted melodies in the digital audio workstation GarageBand. Lyrics emerge through free association or “mumblings,” as Mr. Berninger called them. The darker colors of his baritone, that here is of a school with Nick Cave,
well suit the somber mood that permeates “Sleep Well Beast.” In writing the lyrics, Mr. Berninger said he was responding to the music that was presented to him. “I can tell when Aaron is sad,” he confided.
Aaron agrees that the band can be “gloomy,” as he put it, without trying to be. “I like to make music that is meditative and cathartic,” he said, adding that if the early drafts of the compositions have an emotional weight to them, Mr. Berninger responds accordingly.
Here, the narrator is often isolated. “I try to save it for a rainy day. It’s raining all the time,” Mr. Berninger sings in “Walk It Back.” In “Empire Line,” he sings, “I’ve been talking about you to myself because there’s nobody else.” He summarizes his state of mind in “I’ll Still Destroy You”: “I have no positions, no point of view or vision / I’m just trying to stay in touch with anything I’m still in touch with.” In several songs, characters are in motion, seemingly only for the sake of being so.
The presence of Mr. Berninger will be a comfort to longtime fans of the National: His voice and lyrics ensure “Sleep Well Beast” is in the continuum of its body of work. For those who follow the band members’ external explorations, the experimental nature of the music is a welcome variation that reflects the musicians’ capabilities. Thus, the album doubly satisfies. And at its best it exhilarates.
—Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @wsjrock.