It’s been four years since The National gave us their most recent album in May 2013. You would be hard-pressed to find a bad album in their catalog, and Trouble Will Find Me is no different. It’s a solid album with that characteristic National sound of Matt Berninger’s distinctive baritone voice atop melancholy guitar rock, and its release was met with critical acclaim, commercial success, and a Grammy nomination for Best Album.
But that was four years ago. It’s 2017 now. Time has passed and we have grown, evolved. Nobody is immune to change, The National included.
The band’s seventh full-length album is coming in just a few months. Sleep Well Beast will be out in September on 4AD, and its lead single, “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness,” was released just after the album announcement and tour dates. “The System…” is definitely The National, but it’s also got a new energy that’s unprecedented from them. As Will Richards pointed out on DIY Mag, this track features their first guitar solo ever in their eighteen-year career. If this song is any indication, Sleep Well Beast should be a great evolution from what we’ve comfortably come to expect from this band. But 3 minutes and 56 seconds of new music alone isn’t building my anticipation for what they have become — it’s the visuals, too.
As usual, The National has undergone a rebranding to correspond with the art of Sleep Well Beast. This time, though, the redesign is clearly being put front and center — and, then, what does it imply about the contents of this album?
The National collaborated with Luke Hayman of renowned firm Pentagram to create their new identity, which is teased in the video above. Does this choice of designer indicate a deliberate preference for someone high-profile, a specific modern/tastemaking aesthetic, or both? I suspect it’s a combination of both, as they are making quite a bold statement with their new wordmark, icon, and visual system.
The focus of the identity is largely placed on a specific house, featured both photographically on the Sleep Well Beast cover art and as a geometric icon in their wordmark and social media avatar. Additionally, the icon is broken up into a pair of squares and an equilateral triangle that are used on the edges of images. (See them in bright blue on the album cover, for example, alongside the house they are derived from.)
This house appears to function as a studio space, as we see the band rushing around behind the window in a timelapse in the Pentagram trailer, but the cover art complicates this interpretation. The house’s window on the official art does show Bryce Dessner playing guitar, but also includes a blurred man talking on the phone and a white-shirted woman in a tadasana-style, palms forward pose. Who are these figures, and what do they mean — if anything?
From a design standpoint, the band’s new identity is very bold and appropriate for the new direction they are taking in their music. In addition to the prominence of the geometric house symbols, clean gridded layouts are used throughout the brand’s applications, recalling a very Swiss-style sense of order and modernity. The color palette also embodies a new energy as the saturated blue and bright coral orange pop out from the light beige background. Photos are treated monochromatically and sometimes take on a halftone texture.
This use of texture is important. The halftone filtered photos recall older production of print media and reinforces a nostalgia of media. Similarly, the videos released by The National so far — a teaser for Sleep Well Beast and the music video for “The System…” — make use of grainy film texture and distortion effects, as if we’re watching an old 90’s VHS tape of someone’s experimentation with visual effects. The use of the brand’s clean grid for distortion in the music video for “The System…” even begins to feel dystopian and off-putting, like a warning.
Sleep Well Beast. pic.twitter.com/3IpxpigJlj
— The National (@TheNational) May 9, 2017
In fact, the use of the clean grid of the visual identity for distortion in the music video for “The System…” feels dystopian and a bit off-putting, like a warning. These textures, whether halftone, distorted, or glitchy, add a depth to The National’s new brand and ultimately bring a sense of what to expect as the band enters a new era of their career. They are modern, they are bold, but they are not trendy; their brand visually encompasses a sense of darkness and edginess that we hear in “The System…” and foreshadows a message of caution as we move forward, hanging on to fondly remembered elements of the past.