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Let’s talk about The National

05/07/2010

Tired of everyone constantly talking about The National but you have no idea about them or their music? Feel too lazy to start up doing your own research? Feel confused over where to start after witnessing the endless brutal wars on if Alligator is better than Boxer or the other way around. Worry not, now is an ample time to start digging to the band’s works! Not only are hip and cool to like as well as at the exact point of their career where they’re about to break the barriers of obscurity and move to the big scene so you can say you liked them before they were big, but in return you’ll gain several albums full of life-changingly immense music that will feel special to You and Just You – no matter how many others feel the same way.

The basics: the band formed around the turn of the millennium and is composed of singer Matt Berninger, brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars and another set of brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf on the rhythm section (drums and bass respectively). Their sound is built on three important, distinct elements – Berninger’s moody, mumbly singing and cryptic yet relatable lyrics; the Dessner brothers’ interlocking, co-operative way of crafting grand textures with their six-stringers; and Bryan Devendorff’s dynamic and vibrant drumming style that sounds deceptively simple at first but is one of the most vivid, changing parts of the band’s sound.

THE NATIONAL (2001)

There’s one rule to The National – don’t start chronologically. I know there’s people who love getting into bands by making their way through their catalogue chronologically to emulate the band’s progress, but seriously. Don’t.

Back when the band’s self-titled album was released, Bryce hadn’t still joined the band officially and none of the members had any massive ambition towards living the rock and roll lifestyle. The debut was released quietly before the band had ever set their foot on stage. It was simply something four friends decided they felt like doing at their spare time.

If there’s a flaw in The National, it’s this album. The only identifiable thing is Berninger’s voice. Otherwise none of the members’ individual skills had developed into the distinctive styles they are now and the sound is straightforward alt-country. This wouldn’t be a killing blow in itself but the debut is a monotonous mid-tempo slug through 10 tracks that sound the exact same, one that sounds the exact same but with an actual hook (“Anna Freud”) and the gravely, ghostly “29 Years” that sounds like nothing else the band has ever done and stands as the debut’s proudest moments in its lonely, fuzz-filled weirdness.

If you want to compare this to something else, imagine what Pablo Honey is like in Radiohead‘s story. Except The National isn’t as memorable. Honestly, leave this one last.

SAD SONGS FOR DIRTY LOVERS (2003)

Now this is where it gets interesting.

After hanging around with their debut for a while and after Bryce had joined the band, the idea and desire to take the band and turn it into something more lucrative began to linger in the minds of the members. So, they began writing more songs. This time however sticking to one sound was out of the question. Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers is The National experimenting with their sound, throwing a whole load of things onto the wall and observing whether it’ll stick or not.

Sad Songs’ palette is most diverse of all National albums. When the album comes up in interviews, the members usually proceed to list a bunch of its songs and adding a “what the hell kind of song is that!?” exclamation afterwards. It opens up with a six-minute linger that seems to have no goal or path to follow until suddenly at its last minutes it changes into a regal string section outro that seems to be taken from a whole different song. “Available” rocks harder than anything else in the band’s catalogue. Three songs are backed by drum machines and one of them, “Trophy Wife”, is a straight-up bizarre pseudo-synthpop piece. Those are only the most obvious moments: the whole album is filled with various playing styles, structure choices and other musical decisions that clearly indicate a desire to try things around and see what works. But amidst it all, one can easily find a path towards the band’s future. Some of the songs are the first taste of the band’s now-trademark sound and many of the songs sound like prototype Alligator tracks.

The key difference between this and the debut however is that Sad Songs is good. There’s no misses and while none of the tracks rise up to the classic ranks of their later works, many can be described as great – in particular the wonderfully suave, longing “Thirsty”. This includes the more experimental songs as well: it’s pretty daft to deny that Available kicks ass.


Thirsty

The following year the band went to studio again and released the Cherry Tree EP. It’s generally considered as the gateway between the band’s early period and the following golden age. The National had found what worked for them sonically and now began to expand on that, learning to take advantage of the studio environment. This eventually led to…

ALLIGATOR (2005)

Their first classic, as it is often described. Everything clicks to place here – the skills and traits of the members, the confidence to utilise to the maximum and the style to craft with them.

Alligator’s songs are a collection of fantastic songwriting.  The urban existential angst on Alligator is less wrapped up in atmosphere and is far more loose than on any other National album – the word “groove” could hesitantly be used to describe the swiveling, airy tone of the sound. “Secret Meeting” is almost funky. It’s still just as desperate, just as weary, just as painfully longing and just as quietly intense as any other National material. In a few places downright furious – the screaming fits of “Abel” and wall-storming “Mr November” are the obvious reference points but “Friend of Mine” is the only one genuinely angry and vicious, sounding calmer but hiding an incredible amount of repressed self-disgust in its yelping vocals.

The only thing that bothers me is that Alligator doesn’t flow. It doesn’t really have a start or continuity, it just somewhat turns itself on and then goes through a whole bunch of excellent tracks in some sort of irrelevant order. It’s a minor quip, as the songs are still excellent, but it’s one of my pet peeves. Only the end feels natural – what on earth could follow up the climax of “Mr. November”?

But it is a special album. It’s just as evocative, emotional, personal and intimate as any other of The National’s more recent works but it crafts all that into a livelier, looser format. It gators around, to quote the partial title drop moment of the album. And unlike many rock albums of its kind, it is just as fragile during its more energetic moments as it is during the slower ones. That sounds like a fairly wimpy thing but trust me, it’s a good trait for this band.


Mr November

BOXER (2007)

While Boxer is built on many of the same bases as Alligator, it shows a different side of that same coin. Whereas Alligator was the extrovert, more direct album, Boxer is the heavy-grower, the texture-emphasising many-layered introspective onion that sits in the dark room and ponders about life with a drink in hand; the wallower.

Boxer is all about taking its time and taking things slowly. It’s one of those albums  that do not sound all too amazing at first but something in your head compells you to listen to it again and again. Slowly but surely it takes over you and reveals its depth. Its grand sound palette, its subtle dynamics and its carefully-crafted textures have a lasting impression. It’s an album that lasts, that is more than willing to reveal elements of itself after a long time. But Boxer’s most enchanting feature is that it sounds instantly personal. It’s an album that ties into your life and clicks with it. The music breathes an atmosphere that grows into your memories and takes a strong hold of the moment. Boxer becomes a personal love for you despite so many others who are fawning over the album elsewhere. It sounds close to your soul and the music seems like it was written for you, about you even when the lyrics are nowhere near your life.

And in the end, it’s a collection of many of The National’s finest moments. “Fake Empire” ‘s lullaby anthem, the soul-tearingly apathetic “Mistaken for Strangers”, call-to-arms of “Squalor Victoria”, the heartbreaking “Slow Show”, resigned “Gospel”, infectious “Ada”, thrusting and atmospheric “Brainy”… These are all songs that will send shivers down the spine.

Basically, Boxer is a must listen for everyone.


Fake Empire

HIGH VIOLET (2010)

Here we come to the present.

High Violet is an album that only a band at the top of their game could make. Many would collapse under the weight of having gained immense amounts of critical respect, spike in popularity and fan expectations after two albums that have both been hailed as modern classics. But High Violet is the sound of a group who boldly grab the challenge by the horns and choose to overcome it – never fretting, never worrying.

It’s just as much of an advancement in sound as it is keeping to the traditional trademarks. All the familiar elements are there, but this time they’ve gained an additional orchestration behind them. A mournful horn section here, a lamenting string choir there. It is their most instrumentally focused album, various instruments taking a greater part than ever in the overall sound. Urban alienation and social paranoia has never sounded so regal.

The most significant trait of High Violet is how haunting it is. Not only in the sense of how each of its songs is a humongous earworm that will play in your head for days and days, slowly taking over your mind and body as you keep air-drumming to it or humming it along. Moreso in how pained and desperate it sounds. The subject matter is usual Berninger – screwed up relationships, screwed up people, screwed up feelings. But this time his delivery and the music’s added underlining tones turn everything all the more painful. When he sings about submitting to one’s unhappy life or being worried of the future, it’s scarily convincing. It gets to the point that at a more fragile mood High Violet can feel particularly shaking.

Furthermore, it’s a shining example that The National are one of the most brilliant acts of the moment and falling in love with them is one of the best things you’ll do.


Afraid of Everyone (live)

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Further songs to dwell on:

Bloodbuzz Ohio
Mistaken for Strangers
Slow Show (live)
So Far Around the Bend
Terrible Love
The Geese of Beverly Road

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