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The National’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’ balances the exploratory with the traditional

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There may be no National song more belabored than summer single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” which was recorded more than 70 times. It also may be the quintet’s most accessible song—spit-slick production, a clingy chorus, a jaunty breakbeat by ace drummer Bryan Devendorf, even a tradition-breaking guitar solo—and, ergo, its first No. 1 adult album alternative radio hit. Was it a harbinger for the upcoming album? Would The National be the latest indie act to appeal to the masses this year? With Sleep Well Beast, its seventh studio longplayer, The National remains on an independent label, self-produced and true to its plaintive post-punk aesthetic—mostly. After its work on a Grateful Dead covers album, the band has learned to stretch out and experiment with more gusto. Its instrumental pallette has grown with brass (“System”) and synthesizers (“Born to Beg,” “Empire Line”), among others, and nothing in its catalog wilds out like the glitch-meets-chamber pop firecracker “I’ll Still Destroy You.” And yet, the familiar National consistently peeks out, whether through the gorgeous piano melody of “Carin at the Liquor Store” or “Day I Die,” the sort of propulsive guitar anthem U2 can no longer write. That The National so deftly balances the exploratory and the traditional may be its greatest masterstroke to date.

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