The National are a band that filter the mischances of love through a thick layer of whiskey in an upscale Soho bar. Transplanted from Cincinnati at the end of the 1990s, the band members came to New York mostly to chase the dot-com boom that was still a viable way to make good money as a designer. In between their regular jobs, they had regular lives filled with regular human relationships – meaning there was light and darkness in equal measures, love and infidelity, lust and long walks on the arc-sodium-glittered city streets late at night. Even after they found enough success to quit their jobs and pursue their music full-time, this basic conceit never changed. They are a band obsessed with the deep problems of stable people: growing old, losing the wild days of youth, finding and losing love, getting too drunk too often and wondering where your life is headed. This is the same territory mined by Tom Waits, but the National play it straight, avoiding the gutter and crafting lush, graceful creations instead of pushing the envelope. They’re also a perfect example of a band’s struggles along the way to success. When they put out their first album, way back at the end of the dot-com bubble, they thought that it was their ticket to stardom. When they began playing strings of shows to audiences that ranged from little to none, they realized that success in music, especially in the age of p2p software and the share-everything culture of the internet, is a product of luck, talent, and heaps of hard work. They possessed all three in spades; by the time Trouble Will Find Me was released in 2013, debuted in the top five of the Billboard 200 was old hat. The path between, however, is one of the greatest success stories in modern indie rock.
THE NATIONAL (2001)
After two years of individually playing free shows at the Luna Lounge on the Lower East Side, The National put together a debut album that was partially indebted to the country-tinged pop of Wilco and the Jayhawks, but also very much a beacon for where the band would go throughout the first decade of the 21st Century. Matt Berninger sang like an on-tune Tom Waits, spinning sodden tales of love and lust through the whiskey-soaked lens of reclaimed Americana. Some at the time dismissed them derisvely as being a bar band; what they should have recognized was that the band simply played songs that seemed most at home in the hopeless crush of a neighbourhood bar. Songs like “Cold Girl Fever” and “American Mary” are unmistakably The National; “29 Years” was reused later on Boxer‘s “Slow Show”. Before they made the album they’d never played live together as a unit; they told Drowned In Sound that the album was the sound of them making introductions to each other. Afterwards they went out on tour with stars in their eyes; thinking that they’d earned the right to play out their dreams on tour, they played to very small crowds throughout the U.S., including one show in Orange County that was attended by precisely no one but the venue’s staff.
SAD SONGS FOR DIRTY LOVERS (2003)
Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers would be the first band with multi-instrumentalist Bryce Dessner and producer Peter Katis, and would have the overall bones of the sound that they would perfect on their subsequent four LPs. After the Wilco-studded bar-country of their debut, the band expanded their horizons into what they termed “a pastiche of…different genres”. Their second album remains their most experimental, featuring codas that go on for whole fifths of songs, synth moments, and some rather intense hard rock moments from Matt Berninger, who would never after go as hard as he did on “Slipping Husband” or “Available”. While they stuck primarily to the country-rock forms of their first album, indie folkists Red House Painters and then-critical darlings The Shins are other apparent influences throughout. Lyrically the album is exactly as advertised on the tin: Berninger spins sad stories of infidelity and relationship holding patterns. “Slipping Husband” relates a man getting lost in himself, dreaming of an important life he feels he should have had while his wife gets lonely and finds comfort outside their marriage. “Murder Me Rachael” is an exercise in self-castigation (or maybe admittance of violence) after seeing a lover with someone else. “Available” wakes up the morning after and wonders if it’s been used. “Trophy Wife” and “Cardinal Eyes” share a similar sentiment, about sleeping with the wild wives of unknown men. Unlike later albums, however, when the band slows down here they tend to wander off into boredom, especially on “90-Mile Water Wall”, “Thirsty”, and “Patterns of Fairytales”. Still, there was enough strong tracks on the album to make the critics sit up and take notice; Uncut and the Chicago Tribune would place it in their year-end lists and Hipster Bible Pitchfork reviewed it favourably. More importantly, people were turning out to shows, particularly in France where the band was picking up a following.
CHERRY TREE (EP) (2004)
Cherry Tree is the point the band credits as their turning point, the moment where their sound as The National came together. Certainly the first three songs – “Wasp Nest”, “All Dolled-Up In Straps”, and “All The Wine” (which would be recast on Alligator) are all top-notch indications of the glory that would be due the band by the next year. “Cherry Tree” and “About Today” both outlast their welcome by a wide margin, however, and “Reasonable Man (I Don’t Mind)” gets over that only by liberal usage of violinist Padma Newsome. The live version of “Murder Me Rachael” is nice enough but largely unessential. While the actual EP is so-so, it did get them a spot on tour with The Walkmen, who were riding on the success of “The Rat”; the tour would also see them signed to UK tastemakers Beggars Banquet, who would release their breakthrough follow-up.
The band’s first album for Beggars Banquet is their breakthrough, and it’s a major leap forward for them. It’s on Alligator that you can hear The National, as they were meant to be: slow-burning songs that verge on being hymns at times, drum-driven, mournful tracks about doomed relationships, exhausting materialism, and the propulsive power of love. Matt Berninger’s lyrics fall flat here and there, but they still display a certain sort of power, the kind of feeling you get on the city streets after the bars let out and you realize that you’ve grown tired of the hard pavement and the harder hearts of the yearning couples that surround you. They are very much lonely songs; “Well, whatever you do, listen, you better wait for me / No, I wouldn’t go out alone into America” he sings on “Karen”, before collapsing and saying “Karen, put me in a chair, fuck me and make me a drink, I’ve lost direction and I’m past my peak”. “Val Jester” warns that “you should have looked after her better / you should have looked after her more / you should have locked the door”, while he murmurs “Break my arms around the one I love and be forgiven by the time my lover comes” on “Daughters of the Soho Riots”. “Abel” and “Mr. November” are the most uptempo tracks on the album; “Abel” questions its writer’s sanity, while “Mr. November” was originally written for John Kerry and became an anthem for Barack Obama’s initial 2008 Presidential run. A lot of the anxiety and loneliness on the album stems from the band’s changing fortunes; they quit their jobs to focus on writing, recording, and touring behind the album, and the free-fall that they found themselves in drove them into a sort of paranoid state. By the time the next album would arrive, that anxiety would pay off huge dividends.
Boxer is where it all comes together – this is The National, and it’s the sound they would spend the subsequent two albums perfecting. To be truthful, their sound arrives perfect to begin with; there isn’t a mediocre song on here, and more than a few people have suggested that it is at the very least among the best albums of the 2000s and quite possibly among the greatest albums ever released. The band’s newfound mastery of it’s particularly soaring form of indie rock is evident from the beginning: the dual-time-signature piano measure that opens “Fake Empire” leads slowly into an orgasmic drum sequence and a post-coital coda whose swirling instrumentation can be best described as utopian. “Mistaken For Strangers” was the band’s strongest uptempo number to date, and was used in any number of pop-cultural moments (including an advertising campaign for the UK version of Skins). The string arrangments found throughout (especially at the end of “Brainy” and “Squalor Victoria”) add a baroque nature to the songs that counterbalances the mournful baritone Berninger brings to his usual tales of fading or faded love. There’s a sense that youth is slipping away through the album. “Guest Room” is my favourite for this: “We miss being ruffians, going wild and bright / In the corners of front yards, getting in and out of cars / We miss being deviants”. “Green Gloves” has another moment like this: “Falling out of touch with all my / friends are somewhere getting wasted / Hope they’re staying glued together / I have arms for them”. Sufjan Stevens shows up in two places – “Racing Like A Pro” and one of the album’s lesser-referenced highlights, “Ada”. One thing that’s always stood out to me about Boxer – and to a somewhat lesser extent about their two following albums – is how much of a drummer’s record this is. The drums are light and quick, but they hit hard and carry more of the songs than is typical with indie rock. They form a snappy undercurrent that sets the album – and the band – apart from their contemporaries just as much as Berninger’s baritone does.
Boxer is also my wife’s favourite album, full disclosure.
THE VIRGINIA EP (2008)
An odds-n-sods collection comprised of B-sides, demos, and live tracks, The Virginia EP is better than it really has a right to be. The Boxer sessions were obviously a hotbed of great songs, since “You’ve Done It Again, Virginia”, “Santa Clara”, “Blank Slate”, and “Without Permission” are all winners. The demos are decent, if rather lo-fi and half-finished, but the live tracks are another real strength of this EP. The Daytrotter Session of “Lucky You” adds some reverb to the original arrangement that breathes new life into it and reminds people who got on circa Boxer that The National existed well before Alligator. The cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion On The Hill” seems tailor-made for the band as well, and they acquit themselves well in their live version of it. Most mop-up compilations are unessential and The Virginia EP is no different, but it’s a trifle better than most.
HIGH VIOLET (2010)
From Beggars Banquet to Beggars Group, courtesy of new label 4AD, and from critical acclaim to commercial success: the backstory of High Violet is the story of a band in motion. Boxer capitalized on the curiosity brought about by Alligator to debut on Billboard at #68. High Violet had the pure goodwill generated by Boxer to jump off of, and it debuted at #3. The album would create a huge amount of critical praise as well, and with good reason. High Violet is easily the equal of Boxer, if not the superior album. Point to a less-than-stellar song here – you can’t, because there isn’t one. Every song has hooks that bite in deep and don’t let go, most of them driven by the snippets of Berninger’s lyrics that take up residence inside of your head. “Sorrow found me when I was young, sorrow waited, sorrow won” he sings on the aptly named “Sorrow”, and it sounds as though you’re listening to a contemporary short story writer sketch out another classic tale of urban ennui. This is the closest comparison point to the songs on High Violet – they are tales of modern life in the city when you’re sort of well-off and chasing the kind of life you think you’re supposed to have. They’re songs about stable people, and the unstable feelings they have in the pursuit of that stability. “Livin’ and dyin’ in New York it means nothing to me,” Berninger sings on “Lemonworld”, “I gave my heart to the Army/The only sentimental thing I could think of/With cousins and cousins somewhere overseas/But it’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me”. Elsewhere, he admits to being afraid of everyone and not having the drugs to sort it out, gets obstinante about being led into the flood, and gets carried back to Ohio on a swarm of bees. There’s a richness of detail that outdoes everything the band accomplished before, and by the end of “Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks” there’s a sense that you’ve just listened to an album people will still be putting on and studying thirty years hence.
TROUBLE WILL FIND ME (2013)
A lot of bands will take success as a sign to change up the way they do things; the fabled Breakthrough Album is typically the moment where everything switches gears, for better or for worse. For The National, though, the mainstream breakthrough of High Violet was a sign to double down on their sound. Trouble Will Find Me is a refinement of the sound that they’ve been developing in earnest since Boxer, and to a lesser extent since their 2001 debut. These are lush songs, simple on the surface because of the space that Berninger’s baritone takes up but possessed of a dizzying array of subtle details. Some of these are instrumental – the woodwinds, the strings, the carefully crafted tone of the piano. Some are the impressive guests – Sufjan Stevens shows up of course, but contemporary indie darlings St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten, and Richard Reed Perry of Arcade Fire. The first five songs on the album are as unimpeachable as anything on either Boxer or High Violet. Opener “I Should Live In Salt” harkens back to Berninger’s days of self-castigation (this time with his brother Tom in mind, in a preview of the 2013 documentary Mistaken For Strangers), but it glides by on such a slowly soaring wave that it’s hard to feel bad for him. Lead single “Sea of Love” is as driving a number as they’ve ever written, and it constrasts nicely against the more relaxed pace of “Demons” and “Don’t Swallow The Cap”. “I Need My Girl” and “Pink Rabbits” are both modern classics that bolster the last half of the album against some moments that drag a bit – mostly on “Heavenfaced”, “Slipped”, and “Hard To Find”. Aside from that, this is a remarkably consistent album that streamlines the band’s sound. On previous albums the band spent much of the recording sessions arguing; these sessions were spearheaded by the Dessner brothers and were much more relaxed than usual. Like its predecessor, Trouble Will Find Me debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200, and met with widespread critical acclaim. In the hands of a less talented band, an album like this would have engendered scorn and derision, with talk of diminishing returns and a dearth of creativity. With The National, though, there is a sense that they’ve struck a rich vein of inspiration and are content to mine it for as long as is necessary. Still, though, rumour has it that the band is changing up their songwriting process the next time around, so the next National album could be quite different.