By 1967, music pretty much sounded the way music was going to sound. Before then, music had slowly but surely transformed from a thing you did in public—or at least with family around a piano, depending on your household—to a thing you did in private, with speakers and a synthetic record machine. First it was one microphone recording, and anyone familiar with Depression-era bluesmen will be familiar with the tinny sound regardless of the source material. Then 4-track recording, and by innovations large and small, we ended up with polyphonic, stereophonic by ways of 8-track and multi-track technology or technique. With this tech, you could fine-tune a recording to create crystal clear sound, one of the reasons why vinyl is having a resurgence today. The reason why I go through all of this is because the new National record, Sleep Well Beast sounds incredible.
Not often do you hear in a record review about how a record sounds, mostly because it’s a non-starter. Music sounds, which is one word definition of what music is. But starting in the mid-60s when stereophonic music was starting to kick off, we had bands like The Beatles and poets like Bob Dylan to take away from the quality of the sound to the types of sounds and words. Music reviewing never necessarily had to be about the way a record sounded, but with so much going on in music, it took a backseat to who the walrus or tambourine man were. And for the most part, that’s how things happened, even underground or minor label stuff sounded pretty good—even The Ramones self-titled debut has a particularly crisp sound to it when played at the right decibel.
And this is where The National come in. Starting with Boxer, they have been producing some of the best sounding albums. This is not to denigrate the quality of the songwriting they are producing, as that too is some of the best this side of the millennia. But their sound is the gold standard of music. And this can be pinned down to the dynamic of the band, and the way they all mesh together.
Naturally, one would start with Matt Berninger, whose voice is an actual baritone. This is so atypical of modern pop, that The National get to be a band that sounds different right off the bat. Which is where the rest of the band kicks in. Both the Dessner brothers and Devendorf brothers work like brothers, in total cooperation yet at odds, distinct. The latter are probably the most unique and reliable rhythm section in rock today. Amanda Petrusich writing in the New Yorker had called Bryan Devendorf, the drummer, visionary and inventive whose abilities were “transformative.” Nicer words for his drumming I could not write here.
The former, whose hobbies include composing classical music and compiling huge Grateful Dead tributes, were writing songs that required one hand to be playing in quarter notes while the other played in triplets four albums ago. It’s not the greatest trick in the book, but their ability to meld distinct visions, the Classical and the Dead that has given The National its distinct soundiness.
Take a song like “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” The piano is both crisp on one level and muted on another providing a persistent feeling over which one of the cleanest distorted guitars consistently breaks through. Soft vocals play in the background that create tension with Berninger’s typical dour lyricism. Everything in its place and a place for everything might be a slogan they had posted in the Hudson Valley recording studio that Aaron Dessner had cut out for the band.
One of the major faults of writing about music is writing about sound. No one can justly talk about timbre or tone, let alone how mastering can make or break an album. It’s much easier to talk about personality, and rock-star-ness. But maybe their sound is part of what makes The National The National. The cover of their last album Trouble Will Find Me was a picture of a person who had a mirror cut to fit their head. Sleep Well Beast takes that precision to the next level with its perfect rectangular window, triangular roof, and—if you got the vinyl edition—neatly designed die cut vinyl sleeves. A simulacrum of the best sounding band right now.
Article: Christopher Gilson