Published Sep 06, 2017The National have garnered a reputation for creating soundtracks for life's sadder moments; their 2003 sophomore LP was titled Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. But their latest album Sleep Well Beast hears the band sounding less downtrodden, and more anxious and angry than ever before. Unsurprisingly, it's a direct response to the current political climate.
"Even for people that voted for Trump, everything is so personal and everybody's suffering and desperate and at the ends of their ropes," frontman Matt Berninger tells Exclaim! "That shit's all over this record."
Gnashing guitar riffs and electronic sounds pepper Sleep Well Beast, adding an edginess and urgency that hasn't always been so upfront on National records — though Berninger's quick to point out that all of the band's past efforts have been "somewhat political."
For him, the notion of taking politics out of art isn't possible.
"I've never thought of us as a political band, but I think we're an artsy band," he says. "And if you're an artist, politics, sex, romance, church, the city you live in — everything is connected and it's all political and it's all personal and it's that mix where the art comes from."
Berninger notes that art doesn't have to be specifically about the government to be political, but he argues that if an artist becomes too detached from reality in their work, well, they're not really an artist.
"If they're not unpacking where their soul and their heart and their hopes are at a place in time, if an artist isn't telling me something a little personal about them, then they're not an artist," he says. "They're creating some sort of product to be consumed at the highest level in units. They're making cookies or something like that — which is fine, I enjoy cookies, but after a while you're gonna barf and get fat."
Despite the fact that the National have performed at events supporting Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Berninger is skeptical of the impact that pop culture personalities can have on day-to-day political realities.
"I don't think artists can affect stuff by a tweet or having their picture taken with somebody or not with somebody else or going to the rally. I don't think that does it," he admits. "But doing little things with your own family and your friends — that's political. And reaching out to the people that you can, getting involved in whatever sort of actionable thing you can do."
Music can be that deliberate action, but Berninger doesn't think a song has to have a ham-fisted slogan stuffed into a catchy chorus to be impactful. In fact, he cites love songs like "Carin at the Liquor Store" and "Guilty Party" as tracks on Sleep Well Beast that feel particularly political.
After all, as he puts it, "A protest song is just a human being expressing anxiety about the world."
Sleep Well Beast comes out September 8 on 4AD.