Review Summary: The very definition of understated, The National's 2005 masterpiece is melancholic indie-rock at its absolute finest, and remains touching and powerful years on.
It sounds extremely strange, but it's sometimes easy to forget that Alligator is a perfect album. Understated even at its loudest points, there's something about The National's second studio album that lends itself to immersion. Matt Berninger's baritone, world-weary tone lulls you into a safe place full of slow-burning hooks, black-and-white pianos and unassuming rhythms, and it's a world that, for all its unique facets, feels familiar and warm. The imagery is downbeat, evoking smoky rooms and rainy days before any burst of colour; the melodies are narrow, traditional and comfortable. It's difficult because it's so easy; everything about Alligator sets itself up gently, knocking at the panels in your head and waiting for them to move.
The piano line behind Lit Up's chorus that I just noticed on my fifty-ninth full listen of the album, or the lines that re-surface months later with bite and nostalgia: these are the things that render Alligator such an intoxicating substance, and fittingly, it helps to inhale fairly deep. Tracks like Looking For Astronauts seem repetitive if they're experienced out of context, its soft guitars and strings trailing off into the distance, but when Lit Up has just kicked the hell out of the trance-like state induced by Secret Meeting and Karen, there's a lull, a calm. You know you have a permanent piece of my medium-sized American heart.
Meticulously constructed, it's stunning how The National bring inspired peaks and drops to an aesthetic which should by rights threaten at every juncture to become predictable and tired; the simplest fact is that every chorus melody, tapped piano chord or dream-like beat just impresses too much. There is nothing pretentious about the way Alligator reveals itself, nothing overbearing or confusing; it just slides by, always laughably good.
Lyrically abstract and vocally breathtaking, frontman Berninger steals the show on tracks like Daughters Of The Soho Riots where hollow, sparse instrumentation accompanies a moving soliloquy, but it's his wordplay and gentle observations that impress most; absolute gems abound, like Friend Of Mine's I've got two sets of headphones, I miss you like hell,
and the astounding You said, I think I'm like Tennessee Williams; I wait for the click, I wait, but it doesn't kick in,
from penultimate track City Middle, the album's best individual song. His low-pitched tone is a permanent instrument, blending every line with the music as though naturally connected, but to call Berninger a one-trick pony would be to ignore twists like the shouted hook of Abel, a late-album upbeat number played out by mechanical drums and waves of guitars, or Lit Up's anthemic pre-chorus which sees him adamant and momentous.
And instrumentally, The National do everything necessary to craft the aesthetic they're aiming for, and achieve it with such precision and consistency that it implies genius. Strings, guitars, pianos, drums: the diversity of techniques is exactly huge enough to sound natural and effortless without compromising atmosphere even slightly. Picked electric guitars, piano-led ballads and straight-up rock songs reside on Alligator, none of them sounding a far cry from their counterparts, but none of them fading into obscurity. It takes a small while to realise it, but Alligator is a record so finely balanced and purposefully built that it could not be the product of passable talent and a degree of chance - Boxer would prove that in any case, but the tightrope that this album walks between beauty and tension is no accident.
Unexpected and subtle as it slides past, altering your mental state cog by cog, Alligator closes with the earth-shattering Mr. November, whose lashes of guitar and gradual build-up explode into a euphoric chorus that sees all the pent up energy of 45 minutes exorcised in the most passionate of manners; I won't *** us over, I'm Mr. November!
, he shouts, and then the volume drops again for another seamless verse and chorus which carry just as much energy as the previous ones. It's the first time that The National really seem to exist, as the men behind these soundscapes and downbeat indie-rock songs take off their masks and demonstrate their mastery of the genre in a bold-faced statement of a track which ends without any warning, and it suddenly becomes apparent that you just listened to 13 songs and you've walked 2 miles in the wrong direction. It sets itself up gently, knocking at the panels in your head and waiting for them to move. When international soccer awards go to defenders and everyone slowly nods their head, that's what Alligator sounds like - the vindicated underdog, the small-time actor with a pivotal rôle, an unexpected and complex event packed with the weight of emotion. Oh, and perfect.
How could anybody know how they got to be this way?