Review Summary: My head plays it over and over.Cherry Tree
marks the key point in The National’s development when they learned to fully harness the certain je ne sais quoi
that elevated their last four LPs into the peerless space they occupy. Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers
was a very good album marred by inconsistency, that elusive quality present in parts but lacking in others. Cherry Tree
links the patchy brilliance of Sad Songs
to the flawless Alligator
with a deft touch and unprecedented focus. It’s our first introduction to the happy haze of ‘All the Wine’, the drinking man’s anthem that went on to famously kickstart the latter’s phenomenal five song finale. That’s been discussed to death, though. What I really want to talk about here are the songs surrounding it.
They’re not all perfect: the Padma Newsome-penned closer ‘Reasonable Man’ misses the mark by some distance, equally out of place as the live recording of ‘Murder Me Rachael’. No, the real heart of Cherry Tree
pumps in the five National originals displaying the qualities that came to define them: the Dessner twins’ classy arrangements, Matt Berninger’s rich baritone, and Bryan Devendorf’s inventive beats. The latter is least prominent here, often relegated to mere timekeeper by the subdued nature of most songs bar ‘Cherry Tree’, where he answers Berninger’s ‘can we show a little discipline?’
by cutting loose and beating the everloving shit out of his drum kit. This moment of catharsis, however gripping, is an anomaly among these tracks. The rest of the record sees the band dance along their skinny tightrope with unnerving precision, layering guitars, pianos, and strings to create a tension that builds and builds with no release; a perfectly dark backdrop for Berninger’s wicked musings. There’s no questioning his place as the main man here. Like that dollhouse in ‘All the Wine’ he carries the record safe on his shoulders with wry wit and superbly succinct wordplay. It’s no accident he’s become the most quotable lyricist in indie rock. The pictures he paints with so few strokes are a rare gift, like the treacherous woman in ‘All Dolled-Up’: ‘I think I saw you walking in the city / hips like a boy’s / the sun fell behind you and never stood up / my head plays it over and over,’
he seethes, ‘all dolled-up in straps / all coloured in / now, love / where have you been?’
Not that we’re always on his side: the relish with which he confronts her borders on sociopathic. There’s a certain menace in that ‘don’t interrupt me’
, like underneath it all the conflict gives him a sick thrill.
This side of Berninger is a tad unsettling perhaps, but it’s just one of many. The turbulent push and pull of love is a common theme throughout and he approaches it from all angles, moving seamlessly from hesitant to triumphant to accusatory and finally snapping with that ‘leave it alone’
in the title track. This boilover leads us to ‘About Today’, a song that so vividly captures the intense loneliness of a slowly decaying relationship I’ve yet to find anything else like it. Over a simple acoustic guitar motif and downbeat violin, Berninger delivers a subtly devastating performance. ‘How close am I to losing you?’
It might take one listen, it might take ten, but when that line hits it does so with the force of a freight train. It’s their first truly perfect song - the spark that ignited one of the great discographies of our time - and alone makes this record worth the price of admission. Throw in the first four tracks and Cherry Tree
becomes downright essential.