The National – [Album]

Monday, 10 June 2013

Stagnation breeds decay. It's a ground rule of any social contract; regardless of whether you call it a band, a business or a marriage, things begin to break down when they languish too long. Trying to play up your old tricks and pass them off as something fresh is tantamount to loading the pistol for your own undoing because, in the end, the bottom line is that no one can effectively fool themselves for long. .38 Special put it best, "Hold on loosely and don't let go/ If you cling too tightly you're gonna lose control.” On Trouble Will Find Me, The National put it pretty well too with the album's opening line, "Don't make me read your mind/ You should know me better than that" on the lush and pastoral "I Should Live In Salt.” The song finds singer Matt Berninger pushing his voice to the end of his range – a tactic deployed throughout the album and somewhat derided by fans. The populace appears to want The National to remain the same, to stay loud, just at the moment when their softer dynamics are taking them to a level of concert capacity that perhaps they're not quite loud enough for. So be it. The National are still a rock band, just of the most clandestine and sinister type. If their potential shortcomings as a seat-filling spectacle mean that much more effort they've dedicated to their recordings, it's well-worth the trade-off.

It's this stagnation, then, that the band is fighting against on this album. Press accusations have been leveled that the record sounds too similar to previous work, so apparently these guys can't win either way. I don't hear it. Trouble Will Find Me sounds like this band has found themselves in a creative wellspring, very comfortable in their collective skin. The current sound they've unveiled is extremely well oiled and mature. Again, it's straight up rock music on at least a good quarter of the album, but sophisticated rock music befitting men in their forties and the fanbase of aging peers that attracts. The band plays in the cut for the most part and Berninger rarely, if ever really, gets worked up. Although the catharsis at the end of the Eighties Leonard Cohen sounding "Demons" does hit pretty intensely, shiftlessly turning the verse into the bridge and the whole song to resolution. This is a band that has always utilized profanity sparingly, another occasional assertion that these guys are perhaps meek, but not timid, like the screaming their frontman has pretty well abandoned on record by this point. The solitary utterance of the word "fuck" that brings about the final chorus, where Berninger finally brings a proper foreground harmony to his most barrel scraping groan to date, resonate with such primal defeat. The song's protagonist is lamenting the spark he lacks to incite the adulation of a roomful of people. On that final exhalation of melody he seems unconvinced he can even keep himself lit.

It's those kind of nuances and subtle dynamics that are available in the space that The National let exist in their sound. Nothing is drowned out or droned over and as isolated as the music sounds, it retains a paranoid warmth. The sly time changes throughout the album that go by almost unnoticed prove, once again, that drummer Bryan Devendorf is the fucking secret weapon of this band (and every great rock band's got one). When he goes off, as he does throughout this record, there's no denying that the band members are still musicians of the urgent and propulsive variety. His brother and rhythmic other half, Scott, provides the creepily amorous bass lines that allow Berninger to sad sack his way out of your speakers and convince you to have the most disappointing sex you've had in years. So in terms of sheer groupie wrangling strategy, Scott Devendorf takes the crown in leading the defense against their folked-out snooze music perception. He's also the one bandmate who looks by far the coolest in band shots of these dapper nerds.

I'm mostly kidding. The atmospheric beauty twin guitarists and producers Aaron and Bryce Dessner give Berninger to croon against is definitely some carnal shit. You can almost hear bra clasps unhooking low in the mix. These guys do scan well aesthetically though, they don't come across as cloying or disingenuous, which cannot always be said of some of their creative peers. I'm sure the age at which they've achieved this level of renown grants an inherent perspective to the band's portrayal of themselves. In short, I buy that they're just real dudes making the kind of awesomely mopey songs that they think are cool, disinterested in living up to someone else's idea of rock stardom.

A facet of the band that does seem to get overlooked is the sense of humor often found in the lyrics. Berninger isn't funny in the way that, say, Ween are funny, but he definitely has blatantly smart-assed moments that keep his loftier turns of phrase from sounding too dour. "Graceless," alongside the awesomely anthemic single "Sea of Love," is among the album's ballsier tracks and sports one of its more self deprecating and less caddish screeds with couplets like "God loves everybody/Don't remind me" and "All of my thoughts of you/Bullets through rotten fruit." At his best, Berninger is like an American Jarvis Cocker. The line "I'll be a friend and a fuck-up and everything" in "Slipped" is similarly cheeky. Back to that disheveled underdog sex appeal.
When he turns on the poignancy in earnest, Berninger usually sells it though. On the beautiful "Heavenfaced," he uses that higher register again for a great pay-off to the morose, but powerful, verses. Even musically alone, on the slightly lyrically anemic"Fireproof," his delivery makes the song one of the prettiest and most affecting they've written.

Elsewhere the band shines on tracks like the mournfully arpeggiated "I Need My Girl" and "Humiliation," a twitchy, nefarious love song in the Girls Against Boys vein which drops the lyric, "Got my rings around me/Got baby to pound me." By the time the vocals hit the line "I was teething on roses/I was in guns and noses", you begin to wonder if he and W. Axl Rose are so chivalrously dissimilar after all.

Berninger has remarked to the media that he'd be somewhat hard pressed to envision the band in five years. It's a feasible assessment. Their fame seems like it has possibly peaked. Word of mouth and festival work will travel their legacy around, of course. Unlike trouble, I'm not sure huge radio fame will ever find them. That, however, hardly seems what they're aiming for.

To witness a band at their artistic peak (especially once they've nestled into their style and truly figured out their strengths and how to defy them) is exhilarating when it comes along, even as you know it can't last. Like the smartest bands, The National have defined the shape of their own career, with such staged divergences from the status quo as performing their song "Sorrow" 105 times over six hours at the MOMA, or holding legitimate day jobs while the band rose through the ranks of the sulky collegiate underground. At this point they are precisely where they need to be and probably couldn't ask for much more artistically. Who's to say what will happen and how they'll have to evolve out of their own greatness over the subsequent years or releases? Bands break up, businesses fail, marriage turns to divorce. It's the sound of keeping that turmoil down to a dull roar that provides these thirteen songs with a hypnotic quality I can't shake. I keep returning to Trouble Will Find Me, waiting for the spell to break and the whole thing to make sense. So far it's still got me fooled. If there was an album with more dignity released yet this year, I'd love to hear it.



Trouble Will Find Me
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .


The National – [Album]

Friday, 08 June 2007

The National is the United States of America—with guitars, and occasional piano, and a lead singer whose commanding baritone summons the storytelling majesty of Dylan (minus all the nasal whining and general suckiness). It’s true that–back in the days of Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers–they got off to a fumbling start. That album saw frontman Matt Berninger unleashing the occasional lyrical clunker, and the band itself straining too hard to ape the chiming guitars of early U2. [ed. note – not everyone at GC agrees with this statement, but we wholeheartedly agree with the writer's right to make it.] Thankfully, everyone and their brother can attest to the fact that their last effort, Alligator, was the sleeper masterpiece of 2005. The album languished on my iPod for a year before a clued-in friend slapped me upside the head and made me pay attention, just in time for Boxer’s release (and The National’s subsequent ascension to Hot Shit Band Of The 21st Century, replacing Arcade Fire, who it seems everyone got bored of/pissed off with at exactly the same time).

While it might be a case of blowing the load too early, Boxer’s opening pair of tracks makes a delicious combo. There aren’t any straightforward rippers like “Mr. November” or “Abel” on this album, but “Fake Empire” and “Mistaken For Strangers” come the closest to letting loose. And as for The National being the musical equivalent to America itself in 2007, i.e., a lovable country and admitted Wonderful Place to Live that just happens to be, you know, a renewed imperial monster under the tutelage of a maybe-retarded Texan? Well, here’s the very first couplet we hear on Boxer:

Stay out super late tonight, picking apples, making pies. Put a little something in our lemonade and take it with us. We’re half awake in our fake empire.

Berninger drawls like he’s gobbled a few Valium, and that’s all before the horns come in. It’s a frankly perfect song, a bittersweet melody dressed up as a cheerful, nostalgic summer anthem. “Mistaken for Strangers” follows up with a nice chugging rhythm—it’s The National pretending to be Interpol for a few minutes (and arguably doing a better job at it, too).

“Squalor Victoria” is another standout, and also a reminder of how important drummer Bryan Devendorf’s looping, insistent rhythm work propels this band. (Ditto for “Apartment Story,” which takes an idiot-simple drum line and throws a fantastic, fuzzy mess on top of it). Overall, Berninger’s reached what could tritely be called “a new maturity,” which means he’s singing like he spent a cold winter holed up with a case of whiskey and the Johnny Cash catalogue, finally deciding that he didn’t need to scream to make himself heard. Boxer’s full of sparse, delicate songs, and Berninger’s one of our finest lyricists in the Dylan mold. When he sings in the first person we can be pretty sure it’s not “Matt Berninger” talking, that it’s not “Matt Berninger” who is “a perfect piece of ass, like every Californian” or a “birthday candle in a circle of black girls.” Using the microphone as a mouthpiece for these encapsulated short stories makes it exciting all over again, and (unlike someone like Leonard Cohen) these vignettes unwind over actual music. Is Boxer the Best Album Of All Time Ever End of Story? Who knows. But it is the most refined effort yet from some damn talented young gentlemen.

Boxer is out now. Buy it here.

Read the live review of The National here.

Listen to The National here.

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