Review Summary: You know you have a permanent piece of my medium sized American heart.
It's a quiet, peaceful night in the beginning of May, the days blending into one another in desperate anticipation of the brightness that will soon arrive. A gentle breeze inches its way through an open window, gently pushing the curtains forward. The room could belong to anyone, and its occupant could be anyone, but the unfortunate reality is that he is overwhelmingly ashamed of who he is. A young man, slowly peeling away the layers of his spirit, freshly recovered from a three-month period of suicidal ideation, motionless, in awe. "Alligator" plays. He's never felt so alive.
On the surface, Matt Berninger's language can seem cryptic beyond all measure, reluctant to reveal any sort of meaning, and to some may seem to not possess any meaning at all. The more I listen to "Alligator", the more I revel in its lyrical perfection. It's difficult to pinpoint the most perfect part of an absolutely perfect record, the one that has come to define my life over the last three years, but I believe that above everything else that makes this record perfect, whether it be the atmospheric production, lush instrumentals, flawless songwriting, or yet another bravura performance from Bryan Devendorf, the key to "Alligator" has to be its narration.
"Karen, we should call your father, maybe it's just a phase."
"Abel, come on. Gimme the keys, man. Everything has all gone down wrong."
"Build a fire for Val Jester. Build a room for your love. Take your time when you tell her how she lives in your blood."
Alligator is an album of characters, voices and stories. It understands the impossible confusion of what it means to truly live and encapsulates it perfectly around every corner. Anything seemingly nonsensical within the record's impeccably written lyrics is equally nonsensical to whoever is speaking to the listener at any given moment. Despite how the album is packed full of often inscrutable witticisms or metaphors that only reveal their meaning after repeated listens ("I'm a birthday candle in a circle of black girls" has always been my favorite), every song on this record seems to build to a realization, a fork in the road, a moment of raw emotional honesty. The furiously aggressive "Abel" crescendos with Berninger's repeated cry of "I'm missing something." The emotional liberation of "All The Wine" builds to a sincere promise ("I won't let the psychos around/all safe and sound/I'm in a state/and nothing can touch us, my love.") The record's coldest and darkest emotional moment, the devastating "City Middle", leaves us with the breathless lament that "I wait for the click, I wait…but it doesn't kick in." The funny thing about how Berninger composes these tales is that all of them have rather clear cut beginnings, middles, and ends. It's all in how you read them. " "Val Jester" is a desperate attempt to hold on to youth, "All The Wine" details a man growing stronger and successfully fighting his insecurity to be better for his loved ones, and album highlight "The Geese of Beverly Road" is the simple celebration of a moment in time, euphoria on celluloid, a moment that will often be remembered but never relived, complete with some of the most dazzling imagery in rock music ("Come be my waitress and serve me tonight/serve me the sky with a big slice of lemon.")
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have every member of the National at the top of their game instrumentally here either. The Dessner's songwriting is off the charts in every respect on "Alligator", continually challenging and eschewing the structure of the traditional rock song so that even the most simple songs in form become the moments that hit with the largest impact on record. I could use any song from "Alligator" to exemplify this point, but the song that does it best is easily "The Geese of Beverly Road", which may be the most perfectly written rock song of the last 15 years. The entire band handles dynamics extremely well on this track, with Bryan Devendorf not playing a single fill for the entire song, likely because the drum part for this song is the best he's ever composed, the record's punchy and boxed-in production doing him many favors here. Bryce and Aaron Dessner's grandiose guitar leads snake around each other with grace, branching off into their own identities and simultaneously working together to create a wonderful melody. It all builds to when the two leads join in sync, during the song's bridge. One lyric is repeated over and over; "we're the heirs to the glimmering world". And thanks to the achingly slow dynamic builds, instrumental restraint, and sonic cooperation between every member of the band, when Berninger mentions the glimmering world, the listener arrives there.
It's been three years since I first threw open my bedroom window, breathed in the night air, and heard The National's third record for the first time. It's a day I will never forget and a day I will always be thankful for. "Alligator" is a rare beast; a record that only grows more emotionally powerful with each listen, an album that still reveals secrets it has hidden within itself several years down the road, and perhaps most importantly, it contains some rather fantastic music that is perfect for any situation. "Alligator" is my favorite album of all time. It taught me how to feel real again by acknowledging how insane it is to be real at all. It is perhaps the most ordinary of extremely good albums, and yet contains entire worlds of beauty within itself, like all of us. It's the only record I truly believe I cannot live without. To Matt, Scott, Aaron, Bryce and Bryan; thank you for everything.