Upon listening to Sleep Well Beast, I recalled Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, in which he refers to cinema as “a machine that generates empathy.” Music generates empathy in much the same way, generally on a more personal scale. Considering how intrinsic sadness is to the process of empathy, most music artists will, at some point or another, bare the moroseness of their soul for the sake of their art.
But some artists can outright weaponize melancholy. It’s something The National have done for years, and against all odds, it’s always managed to work in their favor. The band’s songwriting has consistently struck a powerful balance between despair and heart; even at its lowest emotional depths, their work is as animated as it is devastating. The result is a discography that, though not entirely heterogenous due to its repeated emphasis on themes of heartbreak and anguish, wholly explores dysphoria’s every angle, theme, and sound. It’s how The National have remained relevant all these years, and it’s why, even on their seventh album, they haven’t lost any steam in their empathy machine.