In a year stockpiled with records by Sad White Men – Robin Pecknold and Dave Longstreth by way of Adam Granduciel and [sighs] Josh Tillman; fuck, even James Murphy has contributed some bars to this most bourgeois of posse cuts – Matt Berninger returns after his four-year spell on the sidelines as the indisputable MVP. Yet, for all the backhanded compliments about consistency, there’s been a growing dissatisfaction among fans and critics over the band’s proclivity for uniformity, their home comforts of low to mid-tempo indie rock with overcast metaphors spiralling around dying, dead romances; and lots and lots of eyebrows-cocked sadness.

Now, forgive me a facile comment, but you can read a lot about The National’s records by the vitality of Bryan Devendorf’s drumming. Alligator and Boxer pulsated under vociferous percussion, Trouble Will Find Me settled for sustaining exactitude, while Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers was briskly messy and High Violet gravely measured. So when Devendorf combusts into the instantly iconic ‘Day I Die’ your ears prick to attention. ‘Day I Die’ is an anthem, probably the most thrilling rock song the band have recorded since ‘Mr. November’, and that suggests vaunted ambition. This – admittedly conventional – strain of urgency continues with the swashbuckling ‘Turtleneck’ and the guitar-solo’d ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’. Yet there’s a more understated, tacit urgency in the plurality and density of the arrangements; the Dressner brothers’ guitars are heated, there are more horns, more strings, more synth curls and synth knives. Sleep Well Beast, though, isn’t so much a manufactured testimony to urgency, as a submission to the band’s ebbing trajectory towards discontented turmoil.

Sleep Well Beast retains The National’s tender singularity amidst the eager experimenting. What’s always struck a chord is the band’s proficiency in butterflying parochial or self-involved laments into affecting existential meditations, whether it’s been the tiddly hubris of ‘All The Wine’ or the warped nostalgia in ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’; and while Berninger has accommodated a short story collection of voices and characters, there’s always ghosts of himself veiled in each. As critical to their very bandhood, there’s still traces of this template here; ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ and ‘Dark Side Of The Gym’ cascade in obtuse fragments of loneliness, and ‘The System’ reads as a wry take on the malleability of worldview and perception. But it’s more centrally, overtly ruminative of Berninger’s loving, fractured, headspinningly byzantine relationship with his wife Carin Besser; who’s been credited with assisting in the “melodies and harmonies” of the record, and is the (presumed) subject of the stellar, heart-eviscerating ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’. In this building almost-piano ballad Berninger chronicles the devastation only the most passionate and sincere love can cause, to you and your partner; “I see you in stations and on invitations/ You’d fall into rivers with friends on the weekends.” In an interview with The Line Of Best Fit, Matt reflected on the inextricability of Carin to his writing:

“Like I said, she’s so much a part of my writing. Tom Waits writes with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and I think he described the process as, “she washes, I dry”. Well, our version is that I spill, I get the stain all over the clothes, and then I put it in the washer. Carin goes through it all, dries it, irons it and folds it. She’s an editor and a writer herself, and I really mean it when I say that a lot of the best ideas are hers.”

Yet ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’ isn’t even the best song about their relationship on the record. When we classify songs as “beautiful,” it’s often allied to their minimalism, their elegant austerity; Radiohead’s ‘Videotape’, Broken Social Scene’s ‘Anthem For a 17 Year Old Girl’, everything affiliated with Justin Vernon. In ‘Guilty Party’, The National have subverted this trope. Though low tempo and solemn, there’s an astonishing cavalcade of arrangements. Duelling pianos fold into merried guitar, latterly joined by benevolent strings and this intoxicating, moaning trumpet. It’s orchestral, but corporealised by Berninger’s clinical emotiveness. His baritone clutches a withering talent for rendering joy or heartache, and the honesty entombed in his pitch changes have never been more overpowering. It’s a song about the inevitability of endings, and the inevitable banality of endings, about a fairytale love story hollowed out and terminated as an eroded shell; “Another summer of love/ I don’t know why I care/ We miss it every summer.” Overcomplicating the message with a fucking symphony and still sounding nimbly, surgically gorgeous is so fucking on-brand for these lads it hurts. They may have discovered a new toy box, but the game abides.

There’s a welcoming familiarity to this trenchancy, this sketch of broad fragility inside the opulent arrangements, but one unknotted as more apathetic and yet hungrier. He alludes to his love of weed and wine – an Easter egg for longrunning bystanders to Berninger’s schematised self-medicating – on the parched ‘Walk It Back’, but it’s weighed down by the preceding clause “until everything is less insane,” and this frank one-liner has grown on me like a fungus. It’s Berninger laying bare the impotence of his caricature. The irony is subdued and the sensuality inert, imparting a naked, irritated sadness. He’s with this amazing person, why isn’t he fucking happy? Such is life’s ennui, I guess. It has no rationale, only driveways of expression.

Sleep Well Beast evinces the band puttering and probing uncharted styles, but it also defers to an indelible Nationalness; that heady concoction that’s numinous and beautiful, gothic and tenacious, and so agreeably sad. The more things change, the more they stay the same. To my mind it’s the best National album since Boxer; and for argument’s sake, Devendorf’s drumming hasn’t been this vital for ten years.