Sleep Well Beast How The National brought me back from the dead

Text: Chris Johnston

This rapture seems so adolescent but I don’t care anymore. I don’t care how things ‘seem’. I don’t care about writing this. My life is shambolic at best. That’s what my youngest son said on a card when I turned 50 last year, a bad year: “You can be a bit of a shambles, Dad, but I love you. Happy Birthday.”

This is the kid who came home with an Aladdin Sane tee-shirt from the op-shop and got me thinking about my life and where I was at my worst. After reflecting back, I saw that I was at my worst right then and there – isolated within my own home, sane or maybe not, idealising self-harm. I was far from a mere loveable shambles.

I started writing about Aladdin Sane (the record) and the concept of sanity. And then about some songs by The National and how they made me feel. And then from there about trying to be a man, I guess, in my own skin, alive, and engaged with something and willing to go on. How hope can come and go and then come back through a rock song or two.  

It’s not satire unfortunately. I’m a middle-aged white guy with a beard and problems getting emo about Sleep Well Beast, a record by middle-aged white guys with beards and problems. The irony is not lost. But I don’t care anymore. Mine is basically even the same beard as Matt Berninger the singer. This kind of irony isn’t lost on him either; Berninger usually uses interviews to say he knows the world doesn’t need more privileged white guy angst in art. But fuck it. I was immediately confronted by him and his colossal undertow the first time I heard Sleep Well Beast ’s song ‘The Day I Die’: ‘Let’s just get high enough to see our problems, let’s just get high enough to see our fathers’ houses.’

I’ve searched for the father I never really knew in my writing for decades. I’ve been to his houses and read his diaries, but he’s never really there. That line from ‘The Day I Die’ knocked me out. It still knocked me out when I learned Berninger’s wife, who is a fiction editor, co-writes some of his lyrics. In fact it knocked me out more: she helps him write about his distance from her and his disconnect with the way the world looks and feels.

It triggered me. Little snatches of music – words and music, little ciphers – have always triggered me. Tiny mesmeric moments. Since I was an adolescent.

They’re zaps to the brain, like floodlights in the grey. Now in medicine if you have depression or some other mental health disorder you can get very refined and targeted zaps to your brain as a treatment – transcranial magnetic stimulation – but for me when the shit hit the fan last year, when I felt displaced and alone and doubtful of the future, they just doubled my Lexapro.

I do a couple of different forms of therapy as well which can be hard and even frightening at times but both seem to work in terms of focussing the brain on particular parts or images in order to move past them or put them aside. Ideas and memories can get locked in the brain and nervous system, and certain therapies can shift them. It’s about desensitising and reprocessing.

Recently I visualised a green, deathly mist swallowing me up as I lay alone on my lounge room floor. Ten-year-old me stood alone outside my own house, quivering in fright, looking in. It all leads somewhere better; the great unlocking.

But everything was burning pretty bright last year. I drew a picture of a square in black crayon, which was my house, and a line on the floor like a stick figure – only with no head or legs, just the stick, and a shooting star disappearing into the distance, which was hope. I saw one of my beautiful teenage sons, vanishing. To him, this would be his father’s house. But it was somewhere I believed he didn’t want to be. Then I went with my father into one of my old houses, and helped him lie down on the couch with his socked toes over the armrest. He began twinkling his toes and laughing gently. So it triggered me. Fathers’ houses.


‘The Day I Die’ is a remarkable song. There’s a barbed-wire guitar part in it that sounds like U2 (just as ‘Dark Side of The Gym’ sounds like Fleetwood Mac) and I remember seeing U2 in the 80s when I was 17 and being right up the front and touching Bono’s boot as if he could offer some sort of salvation, or hope. I used to ride around town on my bike or my moped listening to him sing about rapture. It was an escape from things that didn’t feel right and hadn’t felt right for ten years or more. And so I found myself at 50, on a suburban train in Melbourne, streaming Sleep Well Beast to wallow in my own sense of discomfort, to self-medicate with it, to use it to feel worse and to feel better – and to feel that same sense of rapture.

The first bit I heard off Sleep Well Beast was ‘Guilty Party’. It came up on my Spotify Discover Weekly. Probably because it has that glitchy Four Tet opening and I listen to a lot of Four Tet and things that sound like Four Tet. This is the thing. I don’t even really like much new rock music anymore and I don’t have any other records by The National. I’m not a fanboy who was waiting for deliverance from the latest scroll. It was pretty much immediate and random and hopeless when I first heard it through a UE-Boom. With Berninger so close to the mic that it might become entangled in his beard, in my beard. “I know it’s not working,” he sung to me, or said to me or whispered in his undertow of a voice, about a relationship and about himself. “I’m no holiday. It all catches up to me, all the time.”

‘Guilty Party’ talked about feeling defeated. And it sounded defeated. What is defeated – no way of winning? This is depression. No way out, no winners. It’s the classic ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ song. Like in real life when your wife touches you in bed at night and you shrink away into the foetal position because it’s all you can do, and she leaves the room.

I’d seen The National play, by chance. This was up at Splendour and I’d basically blagged my way up there with a phone company and met up with some old music business friends who knew the band and took me sidestage. It was only then I learned they had two sets of brothers and when I first saw Berninger’s methods up close – the red wine, the dervish, the energy and control and the absolute sincerity. He seemed to know something important.

I was staying at a resort place near Splendour where a few of the bands were also staying, including The National. Word got around they were smoking their weed through green apples and the room cleaners were confused because there were all these Granny Smiths in their rooms with cone holes in them. Sleep Well Beast is thick with weed. It curls through the notes, giving inspiration but then only in the end a milky sadness – “until everything is less insane,” pledges ‘Walk It Back’, “I’m mixing weed with wine.” Self-medication and the dark vice of disengagement are the primary tools of the depressive. So is the fantasy of being dead or hurt so no one has to bother anymore.

The closest I came was in the park near my house one Saturday lunchtime, the world collapsing around me, anxiety attacks draining my physical energy and depression sucking my will to live. “Where will I die, where will we be on the day I die?

I sat on a rock under some trees, then I sat under an olive grove. I wanted to live, I wanted the future even though I couldn’t quite see it. By this time I was carrying around the local CATT phone number in my pencil case. I was scared driving up certain busy roads near my house, I was scared most of the time actually. But I feel heaps better now, I’m out of the woods I hope. It seems like the main thing I have to do is learn to not let the cycle happen again. The story of recovery is a whole separate story, but I guess what I’m trying to say is Sleep Well Beast helped. Its insularity helped me emerge out from within it – and find things to say to the people who were desperate to help, to get me back.

I like the song that references the author John Cheever too, with Berninger’s wife’s name in the title, ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’. But it seems more like the alt-country that longtime fans who love The National’s first two albums have told me about. I love ‘Empire Line’. It has that sense of something precious vanishing, of something real and good turning into a mirage. I mean, this is how I felt. My loves were out of reach, and couldn’t reach me: “I’ve been trying to see where you’re going, but you’re so hard to follow.”

There are reasons all this happened but I don’t really want to go into them too much more here, they seem so trivial, yet they triggered me. They were to do with losing my identity. Recently we celebrated 20 years since our first kiss by kissing, so things are looking up. 2017 already feels very much like a bad dream, and Berninger has said that the record is the document of a metaphorical bad dream too, involving America and Donald Trump but also personal politics and perhaps the nature of middle age. The Beast in the title is the future. Sleep Well Beast. We have to live through this first. It will come, and it will be OK, better than now, but it needs to reboot. The future you imagine – the good one – will happen.



According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2016 suicide accounted for 10.4 per cent of all male deaths in the 40-54 age range.

Lifeline: 13 11 14

CATT (NSW): 1800 011 511

MensLine: 1300 789 978



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