The National’s tour for brilliant seventh album ‘Sleep Well Beast’ is about to roll on into its second summer. The band play Barcelona’s festival staple Primavera Sound and the first ever All Points East in London’s Victoria Park this weekend, bringing their intense, still-evolving live show to the world’s biggest stages, now established as one of the biggest, most critically acclaimed names in indie-rock.
As the tour continues, Matt Berninger and co seem to have the tendency to drop a few curveballs in the set. Be it unreleased cuts, album tracks from records released over a decade ago, or the odd cover, there’s always a surprise to be found in a National set. As a result, and to get you ready for the band’s 2018 return, we’ve dug through their discography and found a series of unsung gems that they might just dust off for this weekend’s fest. And if not, it’s still a good excuse to dive deeper into the back catalogue of one of the most consistent bands we have.
Across the ‘Sleep Well Beast’ tour, the band have been peppering their sets with a new unreleased track called ‘Rylan’. A heavily percussive cut helmed by Bryan Devendorf’s ever-distinctive, rollocking backing behind the kit, the track sees Matt Berninger singing about wanting “to be alone in la la land”.
After being played live extensively, the track was given a cleaner, recorded version as part of the band’s KEXP session, recorded at the end of last year. “This is called ‘Rylan’, which we haven’t really done since we did it on a four-track somewhere,” the frontman said of the track. “I don’t know if these are the correct lyrics but we’ll give it a shot.”
We might not get a full studio version of the track, then, but there’s a good chance of the track - which fits snugly alongside the sombre, piano-based ‘Sleep Well Beast’ - getting a live outing this weekend.
Mansion On The Hill (Apartment Story single/The Virginia EP, 2008)
The National have always been ones to throw out covers during their shows; on the ‘Sleep Well Beast’ tour alone, they’ve covered Leonard Cohen, Cat Power, The Ramones and more. For the b-side of their 2008 single ‘Apartment Story’, Berninger and co took on ‘Mansion On The Hill’, a gorgeous highlight from Bruce Springsteen’s sparse, lonely 1982 classic ‘Nebraska’.
Swapping the original’s harsh harmonica and Springsteen’s all-American twang for beautiful strings and Berninger’s low hum, the track is transported into a whole new world, while keeping its undoubted beauty. Also included amongst a host of live recordings on the band’s ‘The Virginia EP’, an accompaniment to 2007’s ‘Boxer’ LP, ‘Mansion On The Hill’ is maybe the best cover the quintet have turned their hand to, and one that deserves to be dusted off and given another run-out. Here’s hoping.
Think You Can Wait (Win Win film soundtrack, 2011)
Recorded for the independent film Win Win around the time of 2011’s ‘High Violet’ album, ‘Think You Can Wait’ channels the same murky beauty as the band’s breakthrough LP, with the Dessner twins’ distinctive, gravelly guitars, and features a guest spot from frequent collaborator Sharon Van Etten.
Using restraint as its greatest weapon, the track pushes Matt’s vocals to the fore, and proves a gorgeous addition to the ‘High Violet’ era.
Santa Clara (Mistaken For Strangers single/The Virginia EP, 2008)
In 2008, the band released ‘A Skin, A Night’, a documentary film documenting the recording process for the previous year’s ‘Boxer’. ‘The Virginia EP’ was released simultaneously, containing live recordings of ‘Boxer’ tracks and beyond, along with offcuts from the recording sessions.
A highlight of those sessions is ‘Santa Clara’, a propulsive cut based around an insistent bass drum and the kind of noodling guitar work that defined ‘Boxer’, that also appeared as a b-side on the ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ single release. Matt’s vocals provide the same insatiable melancholy as ever, and ‘Santa Clara’ is a track that would fit very nicely on the album, and deserved to make the cut.
The Rains Of Castamere (Game Of Thrones soundtrack, 2012)
The National and Game Of Thrones aren’t two things you’d immediately put together, but that’s exactly what happened back in 2012, when the band recorded a version of ‘The Rains Of Castamere’, written by author George R. R. Martin himself in the Song Of Ice And Fire books (which GoT is based on, FYI) and composed by Ramin Djawadi in 2011.
The track is a deliciously dark entrance into the Game Of Thrones world, set over a foreboding layer of drone-like synth, with Berninger’s vocals the deepest they’ve ever been, emitting an almost inconceivable but brilliant boom. The track has since been covered, equally beautifully, by Sigur Rós among others
Sunshine On My Back (one-off single, 2015)
The only material to surface in between the release of 2013’s ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ and last year’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’, ‘Sunshine On My Back’, which was released pretty much out of nowhere in 2015, marks the brilliant, considered middle-ground between the two records, and helps to fill in the blanks of the band’s continued progression.
Recorded during the ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ sessions, the track sees the Dessners’ guitars intertwining wonderfully, with a bright, repeated plucked line in the background cut through with a harsher, more distorted accompaniment. As the song’s title suggests, the track breaks into a gorgeous chorus backed by swelling synths, before his voice rises with urgency. It was the only song we heard from The National for four years, but if there’s any song able to fill such a gap…
Exile Vilify (Portal 2 soundtrack, 2011)
Another track from the ‘High Violet’ era, ‘Exile Vilify’ was written for the soundtrack of the video game Portal 2. In keeping with the futuristic, other-worldly feel of the game, the track is defined by swelling synths and a slow but steady sense of foreboding.
“Does it trouble your mind like you trouble mine?” Matt sings, and the sense of unease at the heart of the track is unavoidable; it’s as immersive as a song from a soundtrack should be, and The National at their most emotional and downtrodden.