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White Noise: Feature: The National – Reflections and Reviews for 3 albums

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Feature: The National – Reflections and Reviews for 3 albums

The National's ascent to indie-rock stardom has rightly been the subject of much critical interest. In an age where the band is a dying formula and generic rockers stretch their sound further to the extremities of the genre in order to garner notice here is a band's band; a guitar-bass-vocalist-drum outfit who have crafted a unique sound that does not try to escape rock but defines it, and more importantly who have created album after album of fantastic and profound rock songs. Their first two albums, The National and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, were good warm-ups for the full-scale assault the band were about to launch on the music industry, the latter album especially containing some really standout tracks, but in this article I will be concerning myself with their three most recent LPs; Alligator, Boxer and High Violet.

Matt Berninger is the frontman and lyricist of the band, imbuing each track with the weight of his deep woody baritone and the often spectacular skill he brings to crafting the band's lyrics. His voice is definitely worth more than a passing mention, because I'll be the first to admit that the sound of The National is not the most immediately arresting; on first listen nothing appears particularly different about the music but on repeated spins of each album one hears not only the taut instrumentation which perfectly compliments the individual mood of the tracks, but also Berninger's lyrics open up a world of fatigue, urban alienation, and a nuanced insight into the desperate plight of the white middle-class American man.


Baby We'll Be Fine

In the ballad of the deluded worker Baby We'll Be Fine on Alligator, Berninger reassures “All we've gotta do is be brave / and be kind”, and this line is symbolic of something he does so well- we don't believe this and neither does the persona (immediately after repeatedly apologizing profusely to his lover) but it is still said, as if desperate repetition can somehow make something true that every person feels should be true, all the while highlighting the massive undermining of expectations a 30-something New Yorker must confront in the face of the shining unattainable beacon of the American dream. Alligator deals the reader snapshots of men trying to cope and understand the shockingly modern and disappointing world around them, and every aspect of the music is precision-built to further the hollow emotion that represents the fallout of these ideals.

Arguably the album is the most musically varied of the three. Don't get me wrong, this is all indie rock, and closer Mr November is pretty much as indie rock as you can get, but the band suit these stories to soundtracks as diverse as the screaming explanatory chorus of Abel, “My mind's not right”, to the quiet and supremely beautiful tragedy of firelight ballad Val Jester all within the same cohesive sonic sphere, and this is a fantastic accomplishment in itself. However what really elevates The National in my mind is whilst focusing on crafting the perfect aural achievement of their themes and emotions they never lose sight of an all-important pop sensibility: I defy you to not sing along to the chorus of Karen once you know it.

City Middle

Many of the songs on the album deal with the disillusionment of the worker at a particular crisis-point in his life. Late track City Middle depicts in subtle imagery a middle-aged married man taking drugs and sleeping with young girls whilst being haunted by memories of the wife he loves and her fatigue from the routine that has set in upon their life. The chorus is light and airy showing the allure of this life, whilst the sombre throb of the last verse contrasts with the wife's repeated cries of becoming overwhelmed. However beyond these clever musical tricks Berninger never forgets to treat his carefully crafted characters with a light touch; these songs never get too serious. In his memory of her “in long red socks and red shoes” the evocative visual imagery is coupled with a humorous image of “you, pissing in a sink I think”, harking back to the excitement of their early love and all the while making sure the track never becomes too heavy. Friend Of Mine's insanely catchy refrain directed to the boss of a friend who is preventing the friends from meeting “Why do you listen to that man / that man's a balloon” is funny but the narrator's admission “I've got two sets of headphones / I miss you like hell” is a concise evocation of loneliness alongside the history of a friendship weighing down upon its present, a universal feeling that comes across all the stronger for its marriage to Berninger's humorous touches while displaying his unnatural ability to say so much in a throwaway line.

Looking for Astronauts

However, some songs on these albums take a stronger stance in a social direction. Looking For Astronauts tells of a man who has dreamed his life away while damning what Sylvia Plath calls America's greatest tragedy - “the expectancy of conformity”: in that a man can get to the stage where he must say “are we gone?” (in other words 'is it now too late for us to find our way, having taken a different path to the rest'). In telling this story he draws in through his “medium sized American heart” the crushing of individuality and emotional expression through failing to achieve the impossible goals set in contemporary life, ending with a side-swipe at news media's impact on American mentality where “that's all we want / something to cry for / and something to hunt”. This is all powered by a regular beat and pacing guitars that show a mind at work while the lyrics express the complexity of the themes. However, The National do not always stick on Alligator to being a band driven by lyrics.

Val Jester

This is most clear on the album's most emotive tracks, such as Daughters Of The Soho Riots and Val Jester. In the former, a slow melody plays across the narrator's love story set in a time of civil upheaval, and the looser pacing allows lines like “break my arms around the one I love” to shine through as a perfectly self-contained image of the sacrifices we all make for love. In Val Jester it is even clearer that instrumentation is not an afterthought; while Berninger intones the difficult acceptance of a child leaving home in beautiful and striking imagery such as “fill her coat with weapons / and help her get it on / because one day when she goes / she's gone”, it is the grieving violin that will make you want to cry, and the quiet build-up of percussion that helps you understand that the sombre and curious emotions being expressed here are merely a part of everyday life filtered through the band's unique lyrical and sonic poetry.

Alligator is a subdued record, and this fact immediately places it in harsh contrast with the majority of the rest of indie rock, from the generic pop-rockers to genuinely brilliant but undeniably overstated bands like Neutral Milk Hotel. However the band's willingness to craft something so delicate and detailed creates an expectancy that the listener gives the album time and patience, and it is undeniably time well spent. Here Berninger and co set out a mission statement to report the inner struggles of those whose problems are not obvious with respect and craft, a goal they continue to pursue in the next album they released, Boxer.


Fake Empire

Boxer was a consolidation rather than a radical step forward for The National, but in context it was consolidating a masterpiece with another one. Every aspect of this album has been tightened and tuned compared with Alligator, and their sound benefits enormously, resulting in a collection of songs staggering in both their craft and their consistency of quality across the LP that represents to my mind the dizzying peak of their career so far.

The album opens with the first of many superb tracks, Fake Empire. The semi-jaunty piano melody seems out of place compared to the volatility and extremes of emotions, particularly anger, portrayed in previous releases, but clearly demonstrates the song's theme of ignoring the ugliness in the world, focusing on the beautiful things to distract ourselves. It is soon undercut by Berninger's classic phrase “we're half awake in a fake empire” - a damning and concise perspective on the somnambulent and delusional everyday lives of the American middle class and for me the track proves an overture to the entire album in three distinct ways which I hope to examine.

Green Gloves

The first is painting in broad strokes the melancholy of these individual American adults, out of whom particular characters and circumstances will be picked out and realised with brilliant observational skill by Berninger's gorgeous voice and sharp lyrics all across the album. Some of these portraits are so acute they leave me starry-eyed in wonder, such as on the fantastically moving Green Gloves. The song tells the simple tale of a person exorcised from a friendship group who seeks to live vicariously through the experience of these former friends, with both the envy and the soft reverence of this physical betrayal into the lives of others denoted by the title. It all comes together in the haunting and faultless chorus “Get inside their clothes / with my green gloves / watch their videos / in their chairs”, Berninger sings in a tone one can only sympathise with, creating an image that is beautiful because of the way it is expressed. What this means is that as the chorus closes, “get inside their beds / with my green gloves / get inside their heads / love their loves” one does not wholly take the creepy image as the sole reading and instead the listener is left with a portrait of extreme loneliness, made all the more personal and moving because Berninger is singing about a process that is so deeply personal and secretive in its confession that the listener can only feel they are making the very same intrusion into the life of the narrator.

The second is the admirable and new sense of restraint on display here. Boxer succeeds because the band realised the sound of Alligator, while raw and evocative, was not sustainable, and so in focusing the subjects and toning down the harshness of the sound the band are able to treat their songs with a more sophisticated maturity in each track.

Mistaken For Strangers

However when the band do recapture their darker moments, such as on the menacing and brilliant Mistaken For Strangers, it's in a more mature light than previous efforts. The song deals with the sacrifice of individuality one must undergo in order to become a functioning working adult and entering into the corporate machine. The serious subject matter is backlit by the heaviest guitars on the album, turning lyrics of distanced meditation into a dark assault that paints de-individualisation as a real threat to the modern American man. The track also highlights Berninger's amazingly elastic wordplay, playing with existing imagery such as “make up something to believe in your heart of hearts / so you have something to wear on your sleeve of sleeves” and adding layer upon layer of nuance, turning an aphorism of emotional openness into a condemning perspective on the necessity of falsity of values in the working world. This play on words is highlighted again and again throughout the album, creating lines like the fantastically evocative “I leaned on the wall / the wall leaned away” in Slow Show. Yet when Berninger sticks to his own lyrical ideas he is still fantastic and shows more complexity than on Alligator. On Mistaken for Strangers he calls the descent into the faceless corporate life “another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults”, including the unexpected negatives to emphasise the undermining of expectations in entering the 'real world' after 20-odd years of education in the Western machine.

In other places on this album he continues to show a true mastery of his lyrics, in Start A War he states of his lover “You were always weird but I never had to hold you by the edges like I do now”, showing with simple and effective poetry the changes their relationship has undergone to reach this point. This track is the middle point of what could be seen as a three-part relationship story arc beginning with Apartment Story and ending with Guest Room, in which he states what may be one of the truest universal fears in any relationship - “We can't stay here / we're starting to stay the same”.

Slow Show

However for me the most poignant relationship track on the album is Slow Show, a portrait of a man who is simply unsure – about his job, his relationship and the directions his life has taken. The characterisation is superbly sympathetic, the narrator admitting “Oh God I'm very, very frightening” when describing how he wants to be with his lover in the sweet vignette “I wanna hurry home to you / put on a slow, dumb show for you / and crack you up”. The track is beautiful and interpretable, but most of all nearly every line is stunning; from the simple and funny line “everything I love gets lost in drawers” which is also so poignant, to his feelings of neutrality and unreaction to his circumstance; “you could drive a car through my head in five minutes/ from one side of it to the other.” The song ends with a piano section apparently played by Berninger's friend and fellow indie favourite Sufjan Stevens, and here the narrator's longing that takes its lines from the track 29 Years from The National's debut album “You know I dreamed about you / for 29 years before I saw you” is what truly melts your heart towards anyone who can still have such an idealized idea of love and wants more than anything for it to just work.


The third change it denotes is a musical one, and that is the fact that Boxer is a remarkably percussive album, all started by the drums that kick sharply into the first half of this opener slightly more prominently in the mix than you'd expect and continue to drive the majority of the album through its course with a deft skill that paces Berninger's stories perfectly. And the true mark of their knowing skill at using more prominent percussion is when it finally drops for tear-jerking closer Gospel, a superbly nuanced examination of the disparity between the overseas war experience and how it is seen from the suburban home. Here Berninger shows subtly how the truth of war is softened in America in two ways. Firstly by its commercialisation and familiarity in US culture, “Invite me to the war every night of the summer” he sings, turning it into a social occasion bearing no similarity to the horrific experience itself which he hints at with the suggestion “we'll play G.I Blood”; contorting the war experience into the grotesque toyings of a child. In the refrain he softly requests from his love “Darling can you tie my string”, bringing the physical intimacy of a relationship to the uniformed harshness of war before intoning breathily “killers are calling on me”. It is the aural peace of his phrase that renders it so incongruous and moving, which couldn't at all be possible if it wasn't for the warm guitar notes without a trace of a drumline; showing the band at the very height not only of mastering their instruments but also with an acute awareness of when less is more.

If I talked in this feature about every track as much as I wanted to it would go on forever, but suffice to say in Boxer almost all of the songs are brilliant, and when they aren't they're still exceptional. I feel I need to say that the album does slightly lack the musical range and a touch of the poppiness of Alligator, but this is clearly a necessary sacrifice for the ever-lucid songwriting and composition that time after time is effortlessly masterful across the album. It was three years before The National released their next LP with only a brief EP to keep the fans interested, and when High Violet finally came it proved a band still on top of the game and more importantly, still willing to change.

High Violet

By the time High Violet was released, The National were officially a big indie rock band on the map, and so there was a whole new world of expectations heaped upon their new record. However after 3 long years of waiting the album shows more than ever that this is a band born to exceed expectations. After first listen it is immediately clear that High Violet is a grander epxerience, here they play with more abstract lyrical themes that still convey the same complexity of themes and emotions, as well as enormously increasing the range of musical composition and detail of production throughout. Although it's not a completely new direction for the band I'm not sure that's really what anyone wanted, and the album is surely different enough to warrant a lot of admiration when they so easily could have put out another Boxer. It's barely worth saying that this album is another grower, however much the band members dislike the idea, any fans of the band ought to know by now that a new release is worth at least a week or so of listening before even beginning to form a judgement. And just as before, their music reveals itself at its own pace, proudly unveiling layer after exquisite layer of beautiful instrumentals and genius lyrics that often hit uncomfortably close to home.

Conversation 16

The most obvious changes that have taken place are musical ones. Opener Terrible Love is accompanied by a distorted wash of messy guitars that sounds messy, raw and unexpected while somehow perfectly suiting The National's canonical sound. Also notably Bryan Devendorf firmly cements himself as the best drummer in indie music, from the brilliant pacing of Anyone's Ghost to the tense percussion of Conversation 16 the drums carry over from Boxer an uncommon and brilliant prominence in the mix. Making a welcome return from Alligator are Berninger's more unusual vocal turns which Boxer quelled. On that third album he screamed through Abel and belted out Mr November and here we have the perfect multi-tracked vocals closing Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks and the winningly evocative close of Afraid of Everyone, “Your voice is swallowing my so-so-so-soul”, where the repetition of the first syllable aurally demonstrates the narrator's feeling of the loss of his identity painted by the lyrics themselves. Elsewhere Little Faith begins with guitars tuned to sound like machines and closes with distant piano notes in one of the most brilliant and nuanced musical additions to the album. What is most remarkable of all is that despite all this musical detail the band still manage to be subtle rather than showy, always applying new techniques with a taste and restraint so unusual in contemporary music.

In an interview just before its release, multi-instrumentalist and chief songwriter besides Berninger Aaron Dessner said “it became more of a record that was about texture and different colours”. If the new musical styles are the competing and intertwining textures, colours are certainly apparent in the lyrics, from the “silver city where all the silver girls gave us black dreams” in Conversation 16, the “red Southern souls” of Little Faith and the “blue bodies” and “red violets” of Afraid of Everyone we see colour both in the words and in the lyrical and musical evocations of the tracks themselves; the dusty red heat of Bloodbuzz Ohio and the magisterial hues of England.

Bloodbuzz Ohio

Beyond these motifs The National are looking at the same themes; social issues are once more brought to the fore in some of these tracks. Lemonworld deals with upper-class guilt in a fabricated world where one can escape from the horrors of the outside world (recalling the themes of Fake Empire), a place the title shows as sunny and self-contained but fundamentally sour. He shows self-importance, “it'll take a better war to kill a college man like me”, that mingles with an inability to wholly embrace the superiority of this world and its false splendour; “this pricey stuff makes me dizzy / I guess I've always been a delicate man”. Bloodbuzz Ohio's refrain sums up the American economic situation in one concise swoop - “I still owe money / to the money / to the money I owe”, and Conversation 16's humorous choral line “I was afraid I'd eat your brains / 'cuz I'm evil” emphasises the real fear that once one is stuck in the urban corporate machine it is all too easy to become zombified. A notable lyrical change in general is that although these are still often first-person tales they are less personal and more universal, more about America than the single people who live there, and so here the lyrics up the stakes onto a broader canvas just as the instrumentation does.

Anyone's Ghost

This is not to say these songs are emotionless. Anyone's Ghost is the story of a man whose lover is dodging him and has given him up even though he believes he was up to her high standards. His vindication that he was indeed up to the task are expressed brilliantly in short call-and-replies inserted into the metre of individual lines; “You said it was not inside my heart, it was / you said it should tear a kid apart, it does” he asserts midway through the track. The walk of the unrequited lover is beautifully evoked in the first verse “go out at night with your headphones on again / and walk through the Manhattan valleys of the dead” showing Berninger can still tug at the heart-strings when he wants to; even clearer in the universally sympathisable chorus line “I don't want anybody else” which the whole band sings together for emphasis. Yet again, the emotional effect is a triumph of both lyrics and form, as this track would be nothing without the harsh beats of the drums or the tensely jittering guitars that slide around the end of the track and close it with a shudder.


My personal favourite on the emotional stakes is second track, Sorrow. The first line “Sorrow found me when I was young / Sorrow waited, Sorrow won” is a personification of the bleakest kind, yet Berninger chooses to make this track about more than a depressive rut, as showcased in the stunning chorus where the narrator states “don't leave my hyper-heart alone on the water / cover me in rag and bone sympathy / 'cuz I don't wanna get over you”. Here we see a depressive man who has lost in love and is crying out that despite his depression, he needs company more than anything. The haunting choir voices at the end bring a profound emotional depth to the track, and it stands out as one of the most moving on the album. Runaway is another emotive powerhouse, this time more distant and reserved in the ballad form, with Berninger winningly crying out “What makes you think I'm enjoying being led to the flood?” to express the conflict between sticking out a relationship, whether familial or romantic, or leaving it behind. The real triumph here is that despite the notable lyrical abstraction, especially present in the taking away of the little personal details of the characters in previous tracks, Berninger's lyrics are still endlessly relatable and often uncommonly moving.

If I have one criticism of this album, it's that it clearly lacks the unshakable consistency of the previous two, especially Boxer. With the new grandness comes a slight tendency to become overblown, such as in anthemic closer Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks and mood-setting opener Terrible Love that is more atmosphere than meaning. These are my personal pick of more disappointing tracks, and though these may be the favourites of others I have noticed that whichever songs come up as duds in your own listening, there is a consensus in that there are a few more here than in Alligator and Boxer.

However I must underline that this is a minor qualm when it is so unusual for a band to release another record that not only has so many moments of brilliance but also tries so many new directions. The National continue to improve over every release, and in High Violet they have crafted a sprawling and dynamic record in which the quality far supercedes any worries about consistency issues or an unremitting bleakness. It's the highest compliment you can pay a band of this stature that with High Violet they have made good on all the promises that Boxer made, while quietly redrawing their musical style in the process.

Scores and next steps

As this feature has in part been a review, I'm going to give the standard x.y/10 score to each of the albums, but the ratings will be more personal than my normal fare because of the nature of the feature.

Alligator – 9/10

Boxer – 9.5/10

High Violet – 9/10

The band have clearly improved over each album, but this doesn't necessarily mean that the scores should only go up with each consecutive release. Each record is a brilliant piece of music but for me the mixture of the personal touches in Alligator and the extraordinary quality of High Violet gives Boxer the edge and so it gets the top spot for me.

High Violet marked more of a new sound than Boxer did for Alligator, and so its slight consistency problems could either denote a misstep or a sound that needs to settle for its true brilliance to be unearthed. At the moment, I'm inclined to believe the latter, as the band have shown superb musicianship in understanding that an audience needs something fresh from each release while remaining aware that this should not detract from the quality of each individual record. All we can do is wait for the next album to see how they're going to fare now the band is more under the critics' and audience's spotlight than ever.

The National's career has proven to all indie rock hopefuls that the genre is far from dead, and they stand alone on the scene as a band unwilling to compromise quality for quirks and tricks. They have always been a straight-up band's band, and from such a brilliant backlog I think we have every right to expect the best from the next release.

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