There’s no question that The National know how to compose gripping music, but there execution isn’t on point. Sounding a little tired on their latest effort, the band carries all the sonic brilliance without any passion and often without enough ambition. For a seventh album by a band almost 20 years old, it just seems like there was more to expect this time around.
With melancholy on the keys, “Nobody Else Will Be There” starts the record on a cinematically charged track full of heavy emotions and sparse production. The sombre mood makes the lightly repetitive composition of the track work a lot better although it does tend to feel meandering by the end. Moving to something more rushing on “Day I Die,” the rollicking drums and fluttering synths make for a charged base. The screeches of guitar and pleading vocals hit the movement of the track and create a wave of feeling that’s hard to ignore.
“Walk It Back” bobs along on its loose electronica, as the spoken-word verse carries tones of Leonard Cohen and U2 in its soft yet dark overtones. While never bursting, the sense of exploration on the track sonically makes for something a lot more stirring as the electronics become aggressive and unhinged. Feeling more natural on “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” there’s a disconnected and all too flat tone to the delivery. The saving grace comes in the all too sharp guitar fills, that in their brash delivery make for something that grabs your attention.
Maintaining their dark moods on “Born To Beg” the mood of the record does start to feel a little overbearing. Given a strong sonic pallet, and some great piano movement, the song isn’t lost but it just feels too worrying and too familiar to hold listeners for long. Grinding with a long-hidden fire, “Turtleneck” roars onto the album with a surprising amount of anger. The frantic energy and the overall abrasive yet engulfing tone makes it stand out so much on such a heavy album, even when its chorus is a little too straightforward.
While a little too long for its simple structure, “Empire Line” finds its strongest moments in haunting, echo-laden piano. The remaining verse parts are just so utterly simple but unenthused that they offer little for listeners to get excited about themselves. This feeling persists bleakly on “I’ll Still Destroy You,” which is a shame given the much stronger instrumentation and arrangement. The completely subdued vocals and overall sense of quiet everywhere turns a potentially mesmerizing track to something stale.
Mixing the same feelings into something a little more dynamically tight, “Guilty Party” finds strength in a stripped-back production. Through some light blips and a sprawling piano fill, the track recovers a lot from the more meandering tracks on the record and finds something worth saying. “Carin at the Liquor Store” lets the piano lead the vocals, once again gaining from a simple base that’s elevated through light touches throughout, and even more so in its personal story.
“Dark Side of the Gym” bounces on its cute melody and even more darling lyrics. Using the band’s sweeping mastery of tone, they craft a love song that feels almost effortless in its effectiveness, and no less powerful at that. Falling somewhere in the middle “Sleep Well Beast” runs long and too downbeat, but its slow build assures repeatedly that it carries something for the die-hard National fans. Going into a reserved sonic-frenzy in its finale, it leaves ears pleased but doesn’t exactly go insane.
Words by Owen Maxwell