When I was still dating my wife (not that I ever stopped, of course), our romance was conducted over a space of 200 miles between 2 suburbs in southeast Michigan and semi-suburban Ohio. Skype, or one of its many analogues, was our go-to method of dealing with the distance, and given that both of us were working full-time, we often had to be satisfied with what snatches we could get: 15 minutes here, 5 there, even little 30-second hellos if we were desperate. But the double-edge of such sporadic conversation was that, in our anxiety and nervousness over being in love (and by our I most definitely mean my), our longer conversations were often spent clarifying the little things that were said or unsaid during the shorter ones.
“You said we’re not so tied together / What did you mean? / Meet me in the stairwell in a second / for a glass of gin / Nobody else will be there, then.”If heartbreak is particular to our times and places, to our own networks of relationships, then grace must be as well.
These opening lines of Sleep Well Beast—the seventh studio album by alternative rock band The National—capture this drama of hearing and mishearing. As with any good album, the opener sets a tone for the whole, describing two people who feel that they are missing each other and only have limited time to get on the same page. As they stand outside a party, they know that the future of their relationship depends on getting away to a private place where time is not of the essence:
“Can you remind me the building you live in? / I’m on my way… Why are we still out here / holding our coats, / We look like children / Goodbyes always take us half an hour / Can’t we just go home?”
In each song, we find a couple at loggerheads and deeply aware that history has brought them to this place:
“Let’s just get high enough to see our problems / Let’s just get high enough to see our fathers’ houses.”
And by the end of the album, the sins of all-but-forgotten fathers are being passed on to new generations even while they continue to percolate in these isolated relationships:
“Losing parents, losing sense / I don’t know what we should do / Became a father when I was still a son, she brings it out in you.”
In each instance, romantic undertones flower into something richer, encompassing children, parents, siblings, even ancestral ghosts whose histories are repeating themselves.
The National has always been open about the fact that their own family dynamics often bleed into their writing process, hurling two pairs of brothers with very different theoretical approaches into knock-down, drag-out scuffs with a vocalist who has no patience for theory. Unlike so many bands, for whom the music becomes a soundtrack to a pre-scripted message, Jayson Greene writes in Pitchfork that The National’s songwriting “serves mostly just to set the scene for [vocalist Matt] Berninger to mutter intelligent, self-deprecating things into strange and counterintuitive rhythmic pockets of the song.” Berninger, who often collaborates on lyrics with his wife, Carin Besser, thus produces stories to fill the music, stories which often work concentrically with one another and include all the stutters and false-starts of real-life communication between those who have grown up (or grown old) together.
“It’s romantic, in a backward way,” Amanda Petrusich writes for The New Yorker. “The idea that two people could become so hopelessly entwined that, even when the relationship falters or fails, they remain spiritually coupled.” In fact, the couple credits this airing of their issues through collaborative writing with helping them stay together. The oft-glossed-over Christian ideals of marital commitment and fidelity receive a welcome shake-up here, along with a new kind of vocabulary. Namely, what does it mean to find monuments to devotion in “strange and counterintuitive rhythmic pockets”? Indeed, Berninger’s lyrics and vocals often feel like a driving tour through strange and inconsistent country; the poetry of “Nobody Else Will Be There” is interrupted by a pleading bridge—“Hey baby, where were you when I needed your help?”—and the bluntness of the lyric feels almost regressive. Two tracks later, even that bluntness devolves into the broken-record frustration of defusing one’s own temper while confronting a loved one:
“I only take up a little of the collapsing space / I’d better cut this off; don’t wanna f— up the place / I’d better walk it back, walk it back, walk it back.”
This “walking back,” is an especially fruitful paradigm for thinking through the album. After all, if someone is “walking back,” it means they have something to walk on in the first place. In his famous work I and Thou, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber explains that the German word for experience—Erfahren—implies a literal act of driving over, and a lot of driving happens on Sleep Well Beast:
“You’ve been sleeping for miles / So what did you dream? … Go back to sleep, let me drive, let me think, let me figure it out / How to get us back to the place where we were when we first / went out.”
I’ve been on driving tours like that before. When I was 16, I took a three-week road trip with my parents and two of my cousins through a blitz of topologies; the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, the Black Hills. But to get to those places, we also had to get through Kansas and Iowa—and driving through 400 flat miles of corn is no less work than navigating Colorado mountains with a pop-up trailer attached to your bumper and aggressively demonstrating to everyone in the car that maybe you should stay on your driver’s permit a little longer. But while on that trip, I also was the trip in many ways: halfway through high school, experimenting (badly) with being in love, romanticizing those first manifestations of depressive tendencies. The parts and places of that trip that I most remember still call to me, demanding that I return and give them their due attention because I honestly spent most of those three weeks comfortably uncomfortable inside my own head—driving over things, but not experiencing them.
During that time, it fell to my family to navigate me, to drive over me and experience me, to try and get me out of myself. I realize now that I was as much a part of the geography of that trip as every plateau and canyon. If you were to take those three weeks and condense them down into a three-minute piece of music, it would be full of those “strange and counterintuitive rhythmic pockets” that dot The National’s songs. And I would probably be one of them, my mother or father trying to get a foothold, to learn my roughening edges and make sense of me all over again. But there was also a rhythm required in that kind of work, to navigate not only place, but time. As someone for whom vibrating anxiety is built into his hereditary makeup, the sensation of living life to the tick of a metronome is all too familiar and, when the tempo reaches a fever pitch, I lose faith in the love of those near to me and I start reaching—sometimes far—for someone to blame. On “The Day I Day,” Berninger rides a fast four-four time until the already-sparse beats are made to bear the weight of accusing triplet syllables:
“I get a little punchy with the vodka just like my great uncle / Valentine Jester did / But he had to deal with those people like you who have no / god—n common sense.”
The pace builds with his impatience as he finally storms out, his temper having finally outpaced him: “I’m exactly like, you Valentine,” Berninger says. “Just come outside and leave with me.” But the clock doesn’t always race ahead of us as we struggle to catch up; sometimes, it simply runs out while we fail to do anything with it. Once the frenzy dies down by “Carin at the Liquor Store,” Berninger has all the time in the world to reluctantly apologize for his behavior: “So blame it on me / I really don’t care / It’s a foregone conclusion.” No rhyme here; just 17 syllables in something like an inside-out haiku, sung over 8 bars of a slow waltz and leaving 2 full measures of empty space.
All this drama is possible precisely because of what the music allows—its tempo, its busy-ness or simplicity, the ways it constrains what is being communicated, or the ways in which words fail to fill the space provided. But these constraints are also what make the musical topology of Sleep Well Beast a profoundly spiritual one, the voice of what Petrusich calls a “midlife melancholy,” a despair which creeps in despite stability. “To have so much and still feel grief,” she says, “is an existential torment all its own.”
Henri Nouwen, in The Life of the Beloved, argued that the chief ailment of the developed world is this sense of purposelessness, emptiness, and alienation. “The suffering of which I am most aware on a day-to-day basis,” he says, “is the suffering of the broken heart,” or, as I believe the same sentiment appears on Sleep Well Beast, “the wilderness without the world.” In such a wilderness, Nouwen longed for communion, for a loving embrace—essentially to have the world back from between our own ears. “I have no positions / No point of view or vision,” Berninger sings on “I’ll Still Destroy You,” eschewing theory once again: “I’m just trying to stay in touch with anything I’m still in touch with.” Throughout the album, the band refuses to pontificate on the nature of broken hearts and instead presents them in all their starkness, living and breathing their ways through a capricious New York winter.
It’s tempting to see Sleep Well Beast as an exercise in futility, however sophisticated and intelligent its topology. The National is good at being sad, it seems, but why should we join them? I think such an assessment misses what’s really going on here: every song is a crisis, certainly, but one for which the remedy is also clearly in sight: patience, presence, the tenacity—or perhaps luck—in seeking out a time and space to renegotiate those things that time has made a mess of. The real message here, I think, is that if heartbreak is particular to our times and places, to our own networks of relationships, then grace must be as well. We tend to invoke grace broadly in our worship culture, believing that it blankets everything, but grace which does not address itself to particular situations is hardly efficacious.
In his 1969 essay Time, Space, and Incarnation, the Presbyterian theologian Thomas F. Torrance offered a dense and radical re-interpretation of how we as moderns must understand the expression of God’s grace through his work in history. For Torrance, too much of theology had been influenced by what he called the “container view of space,” a view which the early Christians rejected. You might imagine that the universe is inside a snow globe, and that things happen—miraculous or otherwise—when God shakes up the globe; or perhaps God is the pair of tweezer reaching in to build a ship in a bottle. Essentially, the only way that God can act in the world is through these sorts of outside movements, from the top down as it were. But for Torrance—and for the fathers of the church, he argues—this was a profoundly limiting view of God, even though it’s the one that seems to have dominated our imaginations. For them, God permeated all the cosmos despite being separate from it. Rather than acting from the outside, God’s interventions in history, from the miraculous to the subtle and providential, erupt from the very world we walk on. God’s actions are always particular to the times, places, and persons in which and to whom they occur. We may offer platitudes to the effect that “God meets us where we are,” but Torrance is saying that the reality is much more radical: God is to the world as poetry is to music, whispering Himself into the “strange and counterintuitive rhythmic pockets” of our existence as part of His creation.
So if the beginning of Sleep Well Beast reminds me of the ways in which my wife and I are occasionally obstacles to one another, and the middle reminds me of the season in which I discovered my humanity could be an obstacle to others, then the end reminds me of my mother, and how she’s spent her life negotiating the geographies of her own family. “I came back to see if you were here, but everything was different,” sings Berninger on the album’s closing and title track, and it’s a sentiment which my mother has expressed numerous times in the nearly 30 years I’ve known her. The middle child of an alcoholic World War II veteran, Mom found Christ after a messy divorce before meeting my father. Little stitches in her heartache gave her faith that even greater things could happen for her and her estranged family, but those prayers were rarely answered at once, or in easy ways. One of the problems with the container model, Torrance says, is that it tempts us to believe that God has univocal answers to our problems which he can fling down from heaven—or not—as is his wish. After all, if God can heal one family, why can’t he heal mine? But this way of thinking occludes our peculiarities; it obscures the ways my mother’s time and place and family were different from others, and needed their own attention from the Spirit for their regeneration. This was a work which needed space and time in order to happen, and my mother has risen to the task of providing that space and time over again and over again for decades.
A place for regeneration is also needed at the end of Sleep Well Beast, as the outro dissolves into haunting repetition: “I’ll still destroy you someday, sleep well, beast; you as well, beast.” It’s an impressionistic back-and-forth, one that works on the multiple concentric levels established as the album creates its own mythology: a strained husband and wife whisper these words half-jokingly to one another as they go to bed together, perhaps for the first time in a long time. Parent and child affirm that neither will emerge from this strange relationship entirely unscathed. Ghosts of long-dead relatives speak over their earthly progeny, hoping their sins can lie dormant a little longer before wreaking havoc on those who survive them. But if we take Torrance seriously, these lines also become an invitation of sorts. If we break out of the image of our world as a container, separating us from God and simply providing a barrier for his power to move through, it profoundly impacts how we look for and experience God in time and space, how we pray, how we “wait on the Lord” in day-to-day life. If we think of these spaces as a medium through which the Spirit moves and acts and communicates, it changes how we petition that same Spirit to help ourselves and others. By producing such pock-marked territories through their music—and Sleep Well Beast is indeed rough terrain—The National perhaps helps us understand that time and space, more so than words, are still the currency of our communication, and that where and when we are often serves to compress or distort the things that we most want to say. Nothing teaches this to us like family, as we realize that their proximity is no guarantee of our being understood. But grace meets us there, in precisely those places where we have lost rhythm with ourselves and those around us. Grace doesn’t pluck us out, but it does help us syncopate, helps us get back on-beat. Or, at the very least, it helps us be mindful of what we can do with the measures we have.