Ahead of their APE Presents headline slot, we take an in-depth look back at The National‘s back catalogue, and the tracks that opened each chapter:
1. Beautiful Head (The National, 2001)
On the 9th of October 2001 The Strokes released their debut album, This Is It, in the US. Upon it’s release the album garnered rave reviews; the musics garage-rock-come-trashy-pop sensibilities spilled out from all the clubs the cool kids were in, carrying a renewed hype and sense of hedonism down the New York City sidewalks and into the make up of its listeners. The five band members (all in the earliest years of their 20’s) were fresh faced, not for a second clean, and lean as all hell. They informed every aspect of this new moment; all skinny jeaned and leather jacketed. They had cheekbones, they had unkempt hair, they had Julian Casablancas (during his 3 year peak) writing all the songs alone, and they had an in with the Coppola’s. They were in New York City and they owned it.
Hidden away in the Brooklyn quarter of the 5 boroughs (don’t do the math…s) were The National, readying themselves to release their very own debut album 3 weeks later. All in their mid to very latest years of their 20’s, that some people might call 30, The National were in a completely different place to The Strokes, shuffling their way through songs and the New York scene rather than taking it by storm, a real time practice of tortoise poise (or the titular one from The Tortoise and the Hare anyway). Beautiful Head is a song, that I will grant it. And it’s perfectly fine, as long as we don’t dwell too much on the dicey relationship dynamic which finds a man needling his assumed girlfriend for having the audacity of growing and wanting what she perceives to be better for herself. And if we choose not to hold it accountable on that front, and admit that it’s fine rather than perfectly fine, then we can stop talking about it, remark how The National’s career trajectory interestingly mirrors The Strokes’, in the sense that what is in the mirror is backwards to that in front of it, and get to the better stuff. Within the mirror world.
Choice lyrics: ‘You’re aware of yourself lately’
2. Cardinal Song (Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, 2003)
As guitarist, and one half of the bands twin brothers, Aaron Dessner notes, The National’s first two ‘lost albums’ served a purpose. “We made those records ourselves, started a label, put them out and fell on our face for a couple of years and it taught us a lot. Without those first two records we would never have got to Alligator“. As such it hard to hold much against Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. That and because it’s actually a very good album. More raucous and in line with the still in vogue, and Vogue, The Strokes, and more adroit and ambitious than their debut, Sad Songs feels more like the band informing their songwriting rather than the convention of being in a band of previous. They siren their way through the weaving Slipping Husband, let Bryan Davendorf beat his way through Murder Me Rachael’s daggered guitars, Berninger scream down Available and write the hell out of Fashion Coat, before returning to simplicity with a flourish on Lucky Me.
Cardinal Song is the albums sloping opener, fixed on a mood rather than momentum. It’s a strange choice to begin the album with, especially considering what precedes it, but one that most sets it apart from the band that put out the last one, and suggests things have changed. Strangely enough though, it is the final refrain on this opener, more than anything else on the album, that hints at what is next to come from the band. It’s a gorgeous piano led, Padma Newsome orchestrally assisted, would be walk off (had it ended the record), punctuated by a quatrain full of contradictions that are tumbling down the path too that signature Berninger‘s turn with words.
Choice lyrics: ‘Jesus Christ you have confused me, cornered, wasted, blessed and used me. Forgive me girls I am confused, stiff and pissed and lost and loose.’
3. Wasp Nest (Cherry Tree, 2004)
At this point in the story our heroes still have a little further to go. With this EP there’s no room for doubt though, The National were on a definitive trajectory, in skill, ambition, quality and proficiency. For Cherry Tree introduces us to the coolest song of all time, All The Wine, which actually does show up on Alligator, along with chamber darling All Dolled-Up In Straps and the twinkle fingered jittery building Cherry Tree. It also arguably boasts two of the bands most traditionally beautiful songs, in the shape of the sprawling About Today and, luckily for us, album opener Wasp Nest, a musically bright number with stinging and intricately pseudo sweet barbs of dark romanticism. Here Berninger’s famed baritone feels almost gothic amongst the Dessner brothers ringing guitars, and we find ourselves in a much more intriguing, ambiguous, accepting and well rounded relationship dynamic then the one we started out with all those 3 years ago. It’s a neat little insight into, a step away from, the definitive singularity they would come to be known for just 12 months later.
Choice lyrics: ‘You’re cussing a storm in a cocktail dress, your mother wore when she was young. Red sun saint around your neck, a wet martini in a paper cup.’
4. Secret Meeting (Alligator, 2005)
There is a story within the folklore of The National’s current indisputable 12 year stellar run, one rivalled only maybe by fellow hopefully perennial mood shifters Beach House. It rather handily occurs around the time Alligator, the album that set them on their way to ongoing critical acclaim and an ever increasing fan base, was released. But before it could have a lasting impact, the story goes that in support of the album the band embarked on tour of the US and Europe. On the 10th of September 2005 the newly hyped kids on the block Clap Your Hands Say Yeah served as opener for a show in Philadelphia, fresh from 2 months of indie adulation following the release of their self titled debut album. The crowd took to their set with rigour, like anyone would with a gig that promised The Skin Of My Yellowed Country Teeth at some point during it’s runtime. As CYHSY’s set finished the crowd naturally dispersed somewhat, to head to the bar, nip to the loo or any other understandable reason before The National took to the stage. Or so you would’ve thought. By the time they had a good chunk of the audience had cleared out of the room altogether, giddy at the thought they had seen that next big thing, the new great indie hope. The same thing happened again 13 days later in Chicago, and who knows how many times in between.
The relative position the two bands now take in the modern musical landscape however, both of the remnants of the ‘indie rock’ scene and the wider field of popular music, really highlights the negligence of some audiences. I’m not about to rag on CYHSY, despite holding no interest in anything other than that debut album, but rather herald The National’s tortoise poise that allowed them to set their own pace, and outlast many many many bands similar to CYHSY.
Secret Meeting kicks off the bands assail towards generational delineation through brooding emotionally rocky and deliciously awkward artful progression. It’s an elastic and shimmeringly frisky foray into a more lush sound, with a shuffling brushy drumming sweeping it’s many parts in line for it’s chorus, and build into unified stacked exit. The song serves as a perfect introduction to this new form the band took on, and an exciting combination of everything they were going to become.
Choice lyrics: ‘I know you put in the hours to keep me in sunglasses, I know. And so, and now, I’m sorry I missed you. I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain.’
5. Fake Empire (Boxer, 2007)
A couple of years ago as part of NPR’s flagship news program All Things Considered, there was a segment dedicated to polyrhythms, and more candidly to explaining them to the average listener lacking in beyond common musical education/wherewithal. In this 6 minute segment a professional drummer/drum teacher, LaFrae Sci, first mentions the commonality of polyrhythms outside the US, particularly in West African music. “It’s many rhythms being together at the same time, creating a different shape in the sound”. But when it comes to breaking down polyrhythms to it’s western audience, in a manner they can more readily understand and digest, it is The National’s Fake Empire, and Fake Empire alone, that the segment hangs it’s hat, coat, house keys and deed on.
“Think about patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time,” we’re told. “Think about your windshield wipers swishing back and forth…one, two, one, two…now instead of counting off groups of two, try three. Polyrhythm is what happens when those simple rhythms get stacked on top of each other”. It’s a scholarly simple and engaging look at something our ears aren’t particularly accustomed to from Daoud Tyler-Ameen, and handy insight into the ambition within the song the kicks of The National’s opus.
Fake Empire utilises it’s technical intelligence with impeccable simplicity and similar minimalism, initially through Bryce Dessner and his piano before morphing into an odyssey of luscious pared down horned orchestral de rigueur. And the intention was always for the song to be simple. “At the time that we wrote the song, I just said, ‘I’ll just try something really simple with this weird rhythm and see if the guys like it'”. That simplicity is what carries the song. For Dessner to overload it with instrumentation as sport would be to tear at the fabric of it’s intention. Fake Empire is escapism. It’s giving futility the slip, finding a calm space and slowly building crescendo’s with what you can get a grasp on. A cascade of what we have when we we drop all we don’t want. Written partly in mind of a decaying America under George W. Bush and a generation ‘lost to disillusion and apathy’, the gentle bounce of it’s arrangement conjures an drifting spin, where everyone and everything is lulling around in a uplifting vacancy, vulnerable to their own headspace but ultimately rising on Padma Newsome’s fanfare. Safe in momentary ignorance. Where the internal light struggling to stay everlasting remains on simply through shutting off. “Where you can’t deal with the reality of what’s really going on, so let’s just pretend that the world’s full of bluebirds and ice skating” as Berninger puts it. Whatever the vice, vitality, distraction or faculty constitutes the ‘little something’ in your lemonade, you take it with you. Finding the bluebirds in the world you’ve chosen to deal with in that moment, finding order within the chaos.
The key, we’re told by Lafrae Sci, to polyrhythms (if we choose a 3:4 as our in) is ‘Pass the god damn butter’. Clap the syllables out with your hands.
Pass. The god damn. Butter.
1. 1-2-3. 1-2.
Increase the speed. Switch to drumming on a surface. Increase the speed further.
1. 1-2-3. 1-2.
“The point of all this is to make listening to two rhythms at once feel natural, as easy as talking while you walk.” Tyler-Ameen elaborates. “LaFrae Sci says that’s a life skill. Just like picking up a foreign language, it’s one more way of decoding the world around us. Making order out of chaos”.
You’re god damn right Daoud. Now pass the god damn butter!
Choice lyrics: (if we’re being honest all of them are choice, but in the name of being a good sport)
‘Stay out super late tonight, picking apples, making pies. Put a little something in our lemonade, and take it with us. We’re half awake, in a fake empire.’
6. Terrible Love (High Violet, 2010)
“It is a good thing. Terrible love is a positive.” Or so Matt Berninger tells us.
“He’s trying to prove to you he’s not depressed,” mocks Aaron Dessner.
“It’s the only kind of love,” Berninger throws back before clarifying, “it’s one of the many variations.”
It’s an important thing to be reminded of, whether bluntly at a live show before an emotionally draining song, or ambiguously through said song, but variations exists. Tradition is something that came to be through our own interference, and it isn’t a norm. And nobody in music has a handle on that like Matt Berninger, and his curator/co-writer Carin Besser (the two are married incidentally).
By the release of High Violet, The National are well renowned and celebrated for their dour, moody, depressing, edge lord work, a well earned but somewhat inaccurate point that rather lacks a nuance they above any other band truly deserve. They are well versed at writing unconventional songs, confronting all manners of trouble, subject and circumstance, within the lines of a grounded personal playing field. If nothing else (and that is not the case at all) the band serve as a nice reminder of what artistic expression can be. Singular yet universal. Tangled and knotted and fuzzy but knowing and specific and unbelievably personal. Berninger and Besser are writers so proficient in ambiguity that scores of people find very specific connections with his words, and revel in the bond that exist between them because of them. They are responsible for a lot of the best writing in music, and they have to be to keep up with every other aspect of the band. I’m sure it’s tasking, but it’s an entirely worthwhile and incredible feat.
High Violet is an album where The National arguably nail the tonal through-line with greater success than any other they’ve attempted. And if Terrible Love as a sentiment is rather forebodingly bracing, then it certainly extends to the songs construction (as it does the album as a whole). It’s My Bloody Valentine’s patented shoegaze, the vibrant violent pink haze from Loveless greying and depleted of saturation, cut with razors. It’s reaching for clarity and understanding but with a confidence that someone will get it, without ever losing an inch of that encroaching fear along the way. It’s comfort in uncomfortable emotions, accepting that life isn’t always ‘bluebirds and ice skating’ but you don’t always need to escape it. Sometimes you can sit and think you’re way through it. Sometimes you have to. In within it, there’s a miserable catharsis. Ok, maybe the dour, moody, depressing, edge lord attributions are the most accurate at times.
Choice lyrics: ’It takes an ocean not to break’
7. I Should Live In Salt (Trouble Will Find Me, 2013)
During the High Violet tour that cemented the seismic shift the band had taken into the top tier of the indie/alternative hierarchy, and set them up with more prestigious slots on festival bills, Matt Berninger invited his younger brother, Tom, to come aboard as one of the road crew. As an aspiring filmmaker Tom recognised the potential and opportunity within this experience, and the access it would grant him to the band, and took along his camera with the aim of shooting the rock band on tour road movie in his head. Tom had not been hired to make a documentary, he had been hired as Assistant Tour Manager. The scatterbrained approach to his craft, infant of, behind and away from the camera, left him with a big creative problem come the tours end. And his lax attitude to his actual work provided an unwelcome tension with his big brother pretty much from day 1.
Oddly enough, and by sheer fortune, the latter actually served as a remedy for the former. After being invited to stay with Matt and Carin, and their young daughter, whilst he cut together and completed the film, Tom, by way of Carin, stumbles upon the emotional pull for the hooky premise of his film. The finished product, Mistaken For Strangers (named after a song from Boxer), is a funny, touching and ultimately human look at the familiar warped fraternal bond, through good and not so good and just about ok times.
I Should Live In Salt is Matt’s turn at creatively expressing those themes and feelings. The taut and elaborative metronomic guitars act as indecisive accompaniment to mirror Berninger’s quandary. He spends half the song reprimanding his brother for what he perceives to be actions that are lacking in thoughts him, ‘you should know me better than that’, and the other taking himself to task for his selfish actions. The somewhat biblical evoking punishment comes in the for of ’living in salt for leaving you behind’ perhaps referring to Lot, the cousin of Abraham, who is turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at Sodom and Gomorrah as it is destoryed, an act that displays longing for what is sinful. Here we have Matt believing him not looking back and showing more interest or ‘longing’ for what is there, his brother, is sinful. Allegories; there fun kids!
Choice lyrics: ’I should leave it alone but you’re not right’
8. Nobody Else Will Be There (Sleep Well Beast, 2017)
Even after the release of Boxer it was difficult to see The National realistically stalking a claim to be amongst the pre-eminent bands in the world. I guess it could be argued that if any band sticks around long enough they have a fair chance at that. But let’s look back at a band we mentioned at the start of this process. The Strokes. They been around the same 17 years as The National. In that time they released 2 flawless albums, perhaps the best albums of modern times in the shape of Is This It and Room On Fire. Culturally they had an impact as great as anyone around in music in the last 20 years, influencing fashion on a near unfathomable scale and shaping the pop and indie landscapes. Alex Turner just wanted to be one of them. So many people did, and went out and tried. The Strokes created jobs and wealth for musicians and bands that had no right being anywhere near the music industry, such was the clamour for anything akin to any aspect of them. “They have maybe influenced more bands in the last 10 years than the artists I mentioned (Tom Waits, Nick Cave, The Smiths, Nirvana) have in the last 25,” as Matt Berninger put it.
The Strokes as we’ve come to know them now however have no case for being one of the most distinctive bands around. They’re closer to a legacy act at this point. The 8 dates they did on the back of their 2016 4 song long (3 new originals and 1 remix) Future Present Past EP saw them regularly perform only 2 of them, 1 from their most recent full length, 2013’s Comedown Machine and at least 9 (sometimes 10, sometimes all 11) from their debut Is This It, which is admittedly hard to hold against them, but there’s still a big revealing point there. Sure, they still put out the occasional great song on severely underwhelming releases (You Only Live Once, Ize Of The World, Oblivion, some of Casablancas’ solo stuff), but legacy and relevance are 2 different things.
On Sleep Well Beast the songs feel more compounded, more collectively to the point than previous releases. The National feel more like their older rock band selves, but older, sturdier and with a better handle on things. To claim there’s more than a slither of electronic flavour to this record would be to go overboard. There’s drum programming and further electronic percussion in there, some synth, a bit of audio processing and a production that gives it a stealthy electric feel (shout out to MGMT). But what in other hands could feel like experimentation, or hastily fly off into an excessive and ill advised deep dive into a wildly new sound, feels grounded here. The album flourishes in that environment, and it’s roots are here in Nobody Else Will Be There, a song about going to a party with your partner and struggling to find a quiet place to talk and also to leave said party, except all of that is really just a metaphor for the relationship itself. Theres a terse tension throughout the song, predicated by Berninger’s hushed delivery, more delicate than usual, as if he’s softening the trail behind him should an abrupt blow send him falling backwards. That is until he’s up full of questions and in need of answers. His voice, still soft, generates a pleading force born out of repressed urgency. It’s a slow burner that threatens to explode yet never does, mainly down to that aforementioned handle they have on their songwriting. Pre-eminent bands don’t have to take every chance to flourish like they’ve got prove something in big ways. Just as the small things were integral to their bloom, they are just as equally to their sustained growth. That tortoise poise; it pays off in the long run.
Choice lyrics: ‘Why are we still out here holding our coats? We look like children. Goodbyes always take us half an hour, can’t we just go home?’