For ten years, The National released four records to the only people listening: a cult audience and the critics. It wasn’t until the release of their fifth album, High Violet, in 2010, that they began to receive the attention they deserve.
The National is comprised of two sets of brothers: twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars, Scott and Bryan Devendorf on respective bass and drums, and Matt Berninger on vocals. Hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, they formed in Brooklyn in 1999 after coming to New York for work. The songs embody the geographical and physical make up of the band, creating an interesting cocktail of a Mid Western “everyman” trying to grow up, be successful, and be good in New York City.
Berninger’s baritone lacks range, but this is turned into an asset when offset by the deep textural layers provided by the band. Bryce Dessners’ guitar flutters and twists around Aaron’s fuzzier, more rhythmic parts. They mirror and tease each other over strings, horns, piano, and sometimes even a flute. The seductively throbbing drums add another layer by avoiding traditional time-keeping rhythms. This was pointed out to me by my brother, a drummer, who explained that Bryan Devendorf plays drums like a guitarist. While the rhythm section traditionally provide songs with a structure, Devendorf gets more involved; he joins the rest of the band within the song’s structure, instead of merely providing it.
This explains a few things about The National: why they are so often described as a band who will grow on the listener, and why their fans are often described as die hard. The National require time and patience to reveal themselves. Most people won’t be taken in right away, but with repeated listens the intricacies of each song unfold: there is always something new to discover, and this keeps listeners obsessed.
When you first hear the lyrics, and as you acclimatize to Berninger’s voice, the songs are impressionistic snapshots. They are loaded with imagery, but cryptic enough to be multivalent. Berninger has described them as: “desperate, blurry approximations of something meaningful.” This is an engaging technique, as the listener inserts their own story into the song; what you mishear, you make up, and it becomes yours. Each song is like a short story, focussing on intimate, awkward moments; everyday occurrences infused with fantasy. The characters are romantic, disillusioned, voyeuristic and clumsy. They are aware of and insecure about their own shortcomings, which are either stated outright or covered up with faux bravado. These are flawed people, trying to be as good as they imagine everyone else to be. They are everyone.
The Great Gatsby has been cited by Berninger as an influence on the song Gospel (Boxer), but it’s hard to overlook the glaring similarity of the general themes and poetic lyricism found throughout both both artists’ back catalogues. The gist of the National’s lyrical identity can be encapsulated in this almost creepily accurate and concise quote, from Fitzgerald’s Tender is The Night:
“In the dead white hours […] staring into a stranger’s pantry across the upshine of a street-lamp, he used to think that he wanted to be good, he wanted to be kind, he wanted to be brave and wise, but it was all pretty difficult. He wanted to be loved, too, if he could fit it in.”
The National released two albums (The National and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers), before getting any real (if little) attention with their third record. Alligator is a youthful, boisterous record; both the music and lyrics are loose, frantic, and ridden with anxiety. The record feels 'American' (if anything can feel American), but it isn’t set in New York, as later albums will be. The characters are running around all over the country, feeling their youth fading but resisting adulthood. They are self-obsessed, sometimes delusional. They struggle with the tensions between following their instincts and responsibility, the desire to be free and the desire to settle down. The songs are faster, and Berninger shouts more on this than any other record.
Their next offering, Boxer, is grown up, stately and precious. Washed of Alligator’s vivacious colour, it’s easy to imagine the songs as black and white vignettes. It is a small, insular record, set in New York City apartments or late-night streets. The characters from Alligator are settled, and Berninger captures the tension of two adults sharing a small place. Where Alligator was about being purposefully reckless, Boxer is about desperately trying to gain control. With age, responsibilities have mounted, and there is no escape. The music reflects this, being tightly bound, less energetic, and more ornate.
High Violet, so named because “it’s all so crazy but seems so important”, came out highly anticipated, in spring 2010. The record is a departure for the band (just as Boxer once was). It’s a testament to their talent that their innovation is still working; after five albums old school fans remain firmly on board and new fans are collected. High Violet starts with the nervous buzz of Terrible Love before extrapolating on old themes, and introducing new ones (Berninger now has a child). Boxer was set in New York at night, High Violet is New York in the rain, with a few tales of country side vacations, again reminiscent of The Great Gatsby. The music is fuzzier, louder and less intricate. On High Violet the characters have settled into domesticity, happily, but not without some of the requisite anxiety.
It is clear that The National have reached the apex of their career thus far. This is their moment, and they are gripping it tightly with both hands. They are completely in control, but humble enough to know that it could slip away at any moment. Their live show is a mixture of complete perfectionism coming from the Dessner twins (Bryce was classically trained at Yale), and the raw emotional intensity of Berninger, who has no formal training and cares only about the “heart” of the songs. This creates a cacophony of superlative sound.
Playing both Edinburgh and Glasgow on the 23rd and 24th of August, these were the first “real shows” after a summer run of festivals, where they joked that frontman Matt Berninger often “calls it in”. The band reveled in going back to their roots playing in small dark rooms, diving tremendously far back into their catalogue and in Berninger’s case, the audience. The crowd were soaked in the atmospheric, dominating lights of violet, green and red. Flashes of bright white provided swirling halos behind Berninger’s head as he clutched the microphone like a lover. When he wasn’t stomping all over the stage screaming to himself, and when the Dessners weren’t completely lost in their music, nodding their heads and twisting their bodies; when the crowd weren’t shouting every line right back at them, they would often catch each other’s eyes and laugh.