Hot New Joint: "Guilty Party" by The National

I say your name; I say I’m sorry

It’s territory The National have tread in before, eerily reminiscent of the once obscure track from the Cherry Tree EP, “About Today”—a song that took on new life once the band figure out what to do with it in a live setting: slow it down slightly, let the tension build, and then let it explode.

A four month roll out for a new album is kind of a long time. Traditionally (if the last ten years have taught us anything) when The National are going to release a new record, it’s usually in May. This time around, the announcement of a new album arrived in May; the album, Sleep Well Beast, will not arrive until September. The news of this forthcoming effort came alongside the album’s first single, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.”

Now, following its live debut in late June, the band has issued another slice of Sleep Well Beast—the slow burning, skittering, glitchy, and somber “Guilty Party.”

If “Guilty Party,” as well as “System,” indicate anything about the sound of the new album, it’s that we’ve entered into a new phase for the band, sonically speaking. We could talk for days about the shadowy tension and release found in their “classic” efforts like Alligator and Boxer, and how the band, for better or for worse, peaked with 2010’s High Violet—the culmination of a decade’s worth of work and growth that found frontman Matt Berninger finally becoming comfortable in his role, and a more confident vocalist.

Their 2013 album, Trouble Will Find Me, wasn’t a misstep; it just did nothing to truly move the band forward, or backward. Reflecting on it after four years, it’s easy to see it was a record made by a band that had no idea what to do with their success, or their aesthetic.

The four years between records has allowed members of the band to pursue other projects, and to continue in developing as musicians and performers. That development is very apparent in these early slices of Sleep Well Beast—it was obvious from the rollicking vibe and tight, crisp sounding production of “System,” and it’s very obvious on “Guilty Party,” with the inclusion of the jittery drum machines and buzzy synths to help power the song along, mixing the mechanical with the band’s organic core.

“Guilt Party” is sad, sure—a majority of National songs are sad. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? But it’s what they are doing with that sadness this time around that makes this song so compelling, essential, and one of 2017’s best. The evocative, personal levels Berninger takes the listener to on “Guilt Party” is only rivaled by a few other songs in their canon—most notably Trouble Will Find Me’s “Pink Rabbits.”

When the band hit their creative stride with the one-two punch of Alligator and Boxer, the songs were submerged in mysterious, vague imagery and sketches. You were certain there was a little bit of Berninger in there somewhere, but a majority of the material from this time (especially on Alligator) was steeped in the now infamous hyper-literate fragmented style of writing.

“Guilty Party” is still, lyrically, very fragmented, and it works to create very vivid sketches—but rather than fictional characters, or ambiguous ideas, Berninger fragments himself, working to build a stark narrative of the tensions of a relationship.

I say your name; I say I’m sorry

Throughout, there are (possibly intentional) callbacks to other National songs—including the aforementioned “About Today.” The song opens with a sleepless narrator: “You’re sleeping night and day. How’d you do it? Me, I am wide awake, feeling defeated,” mirroring the dramatically paced conversation from “About Today”—“Hey, are you awake?” “Yeah I’m right here.” “Can I ask you about today? How close am I to losing you?

As the song continues, Berninger mentions the summer—a season he has wrote into two songs on High Violet, “Lemonworld” and “Conversation 19”; and near the end, he laments, “It all catches up to me, all the time” reminiscent of the very real portrait of depression he painted on “Pink Rabbits.”

Musically, the song further shows the band’s embracement of dissonance and electronic elements. Drummer Bryan Devendorf’s percussion slides in effortlessly alongside the drum machine, while brother Scott’s high notes on the bass fold nicely into the mix, chugging the rhythm along, as swirling guitar plucks, warm synthesizers, and somber, downcast piano fill in the rest of the sonic landscape.

I’m no holiday,” Berninger confesses early in the song, and by the end, he’s spiraled deeper into self-deprecation and bearing the burden of the rift in this relationship—“I just got nothing—nothing left to say.”

In an interview late last year, Berninger explained that he and his wife, Carin Besser, co-wrote a number of the lyrics for Sleep Well Beast together. “Marriage is hard,” he said while discussing the experience, which he ultimately deemed a health thing for the both of them. And he’s right. Marriage is hard. You can be “happily married,” but still struggle, and it’s that inward honesty that makes “Guilty Party” such an important and urgent song—both for the band themselves, as well as the audience who has grown with them over the last decade plus.

Sleep Well Beast arrives on September 8th, via 4AD. Those who pre-order receive downloads of both of the aforementioned new songs.