Review Summary: The National's 2005 effort remains a truly special record.
Reviewers have a tough time describing The National. Many of their songs are subdued yet far from mellow. Their singer drops lyrics that seem to make no sense but are utterly poetic at the same time. They’re a post-punk band that doesn’t sound like Joy Division or Gang of Four; even that comparison isn’t true because, in the end, The National aren’t even really a post-punk band. Because of all this they’ve been tagged with certain clichés: they’re a grower, they’re melancholic (singer and lyricist Matt Berninger has repeatedly denied the latter.) These tags are true, but only to a certain extent. They are a grower, and yet all their albums sound great on the first spin, increasing with each subsequent one. Their breakthrough effort Alligator
remains a perfect summation of their sound. It's both gorgeous and wiry, original yet familiar, at times both beautiful and harsh.
Berninger has soaked up the most acclaim of all the band members for his fascinating lyrics and arresting baritone, but the rest of the band are truly special as well. Guitarists Aaron and Bryce Desnner are both classically trained, and have toured with the likes of The Bang on a Can All-stars and Phillip Glass. Fortunately, they choose not to manifest their obvious pedigree and talent with over the top soloing, but instead with dynamic and unusual riffs and chords that pepper tracks like “Secret Meeting” and “Looking For Astronauts”. The bands rhythm section (also composed of two brothers: Bryan and Scott Devendorf on drums and bass respectively) is also surprisingly powerful, with Bryan’s dynamic drumming giving the band’s songs a powerful edge. Most songs are augmented by gorgeous string and piano arrangements, courtesy of Bryce’s Clogs bandmate Padma Newsome.
The band cover a lot of ground on Alligator
. From the stately opener “Secret Meeting”, with its fluttering bassline and melodic guitars, to the anthemic rocker “Abel” with its repeated shouts of “My mind’s not right.” Anthemic is an adjective that can be used to describe many of the albums songs, due in large part to their ability to write a moving chorus. “Lit Up” is a perfect example of this, with its huge sing-along reframe. The band spend an equal amount of time, however, on gorgeous subdued songs, though not ballads or slow burns in the traditional sense. “Daughter of the Soho Riots” is a perfect example of this, as is “City Middle” which slowly builds to a hypnotic conclusion. The band strikes a perfect balance on “Friend of Mine” a perfectly written track with note perfect melodies and a staccato drumbeat that drives the song as much as the guitars.
Berninger proves himself worthy of the praise that has been heaped at his feat. His lyrics rarely build to a cohesive whole, but remain brilliant non the less. He has a unique mastery of imagery, with lines like “Show up here loaded with bells on your toes/I don't care what you're into/I'll put velvet ropes around you, if that's what you need.” Elsewhere, he shows fleeting glimpses of paranoia with “I think this place is full of spies/I think they're onto me/Didn't anybody, didn't anybody tell you/Didn't anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room”, melancholy with “Karen, I'm not taking sides
I don't think I'll ever do that again/I'll end up winning and I won't know why/I'm really trying to shine here, I'm really trying” and even self mocking with “I'm put together beautifully/Big wet bottle in my fist, big wet rose in my teeth/I'm perfect piece of as
s/Like every Californian.” And while there’s no way to know what he means by it, its hard not to be enchanted by a line like “You know you have a permanent piece/Of my medium-sized American heart.”
I could probably go on for hours about the closer “Mr. November”, possibly the greatest song they’ve ever written. Suffice to say it sums up the album in a perfect, single snapshot. Like all the other songs, it doesn’t seem particularly revolutionary at first, but it reveals itself in the little details: a particularly well modulated guitar riff, a sharp drumbeat, or an especially interesting lyric. I have no idea what “I won’t fuc
k us over, I’m Mr. November/I’m Mr. November, I won’t fuc
k us over” means, but that doesn’t stop it from being utterly brilliant, and that in itself reflects on to the rest of the album.
Looking For Astronaughts
Friend of Mine