Review Summary: A perfect blend of dark humor, sadness, honesty and brilliant instrumentation.
I can’t think of anything more clever to call Alligator than an often overlooked masterpiece. From the sudden opening of Secret Meeting to the climactic roar of a closer that is Mr. November, it’s simply a perfect piece of music. The quiet but always gripping instrumentation seems to reveal something new with each listen; be it a perfectly placed guitar lead, an intense and powerful drum section, or one of Matt’s brilliant lyrics. Alligator is the sound of The National finding who they are, just as Matt found who he was, and you can hear it in both the music and his lyrics.
It took time for me to even be able to stand listening to Alligator. The songs seemed to lead nowhere, the music sounded flat out boring to me and I couldn’t for the life of me enjoy the vocals. But it’s easy to see now that the songs never seemed to lead anywhere because they were already there, the music is a beautiful mix of talent and subtlety and the vocals couldn’t suit it more. Every note on guitar shines and the drumming is forceful; constantly evolving but never sounding too busy. The often added piano and violin are played just as well, helping to build atmosphere and make each song sound full. Some of it is played so delicately and with such subtlety that it almost seems like a shame that they’re hidden beneath everything else.
Traces of the two albums that were released prior to Alligator can be heard; in fact it in many ways feels like a bold expansion of the ideas that worked best for them. The difference however is that in the past their sound represented a group of people who knew exactly where they were in life, whereas on Alligator Matt’s lyrics make it abundantly clear that he’s confused, disoriented and scared, in a constant struggle to figure things out. On “Karen,” he confesses that he feels “Mechanical and thin” over slow and simple keyboard playing and dark, quiet guitar playing. In the poignant ‘Daughters of the Soho Riots” he confesses “Everything I can remember, I remember wrong,” as an equally heartbreaking fingerpicked guitar plays. The lyrics are constantly surprising and moving, and they’re often presented in the form of darkly funny sarcasm (“I’m a perfect piece of ass, like every Californian”), or erupting in anger, as he screams “My mind’s not right!” in Abel. What makes these lyrics special is that you can tell he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong, and each song is a step towards figuring it out. They’re strikingly honest but clever as well.
Despite this however, the album can be uplifting at times. “Lit Up” is one of the few rockers on the album, with guitars that are just as strong sounding as the drums, making it one of the most all around fun songs on the album. “Abel” roars from the moment it starts, again building consistently. By the time Matt screams “I’m missing something!” it’s hard not to find some way to relate. “The Geese of Beverly Road” is a quiet and understated masterpiece on its own; a tale of confusion and the problems that come with the freedom of being an adult, and I can’t think of many moments in music that are more beautiful than him singing “We’re the heirs to the glimmering world.” The music fits these themes perfectly, and even though the brilliant way in which they’re composed keeps you listening intently, it’s easy to discover something new with every listen.
Every phrase and genius piece of music builds up to Mr. November, the final song on the album, a perfect climax, and one of the finest rock songs I’ve ever heard. Almost everything that makes every song before it great is present here. The drums are strong but still feel restrained, the guitar carries the song, and Matt gives one of his greatest vocal performances of his career so far. It builds up to an inspiring and catchy chorus, but then suddenly slows down again, allowing every aspect of the song to shine. Matt sounds completely sincere while yelling “I’m Mr. November!” and as the song reaches its conclusion, it finally sounds like he’s starting to figure things out.