The National - Alligator
For any music lover, one of the joys of life is the feeling that you’ve discovered something. There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of excitement, first hearing a song or band that you know will impact your life, and dropping everything to focus all your attentions on the wondrous racket emanating from a nearby speaker. You pass along the discovery to a select band of friends, confident that they will most likely share your passion, and come back to thank you in days to come. You look with a keen sense of pride as their reviews just start to perforate the outer reaches of the mainstream press, then wince at the feeling that they might not be ‘your band’ for much longer. John Peel had this very feeling hearing 'Teenage Kicks' by The Undertones, for the first time. I am delighted to share that my own personal musical highlight of 2005 was first 'discovering' 'Mr. November' by The National.
It is a melancholy yet rousing mix. An ambiguous, repetitive lyric delivered by an instantly unique voice, possessed of the same unmistakeably personal style of an Ian Curtis, Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen. A raw, yet polished sound, moving from lulling to frantic, particularly in the machine-gun drumming of the song’s last bridge. The brilliant use of the sound of silence following the chorus, leading to the song’s best line; “I wish I believed in fate, wish I didn’t sleep so late”.
Given that this was my first encounter with The National, their Beggar’s Banquet-released third album, had a lot to live up to. Formed in Brooklyn, and hailing from Cincinnati, this five-piece have been around longer than it would seem, as they have remained just below the mainstream radar up until now. Preceded by 2001’s self-titled debut (showing potential without finesse), 2003’s brilliantly-titled 'Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers' and the EP 'Cherry Tree', they aren’t the newcomers any more, and Alligator has a tender confidence to prove that.
Opening track 'Secret Meeting' is a revelation, once again, sounding absolutely nothing like 'Mr. November', and all the better in its own right, for that. Centred around the baritone of Matt Berninger, it saunters rather than explodes from the speakers. A bundle of alluring poetics, backed by wonderfully-noodly guitar lines, it is a great track to begin the album, and correctly bodes well for what is to follow. 'Secret Meeting' is also one of the album’s most quotable songs with its central line “I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain”, and “Didn’t anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?” among the eloquent highlights.
Lyrically, the darkly humorous 'Karen' is a tale of those aforementioned dirty lovers, evoking scenarios such as: “It’s a common fetish for a doting man, to ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand”.
Listening to this new set, The National have grown into a great band, who are intriguingly impossible to pin down. Sparsely sprinkled through the album are raucous New York stormers such as 'Lit Up' and the single 'Abel', alive with electric drumming and insistent, powerful choruses. For the main part, though, they retreat to down-home American tales over sorrowful, melodic arrangements. Soul-searching, wistful and touching; 'Looking for Astronauts' and 'Daughters of the Soho Riots' are among the best Americana you are likely to hear. The latter rotates around simple guitar, comparable to the best of Richmond Fontaine or Bright Eyes’ less complex arrangements, and reveals another of the album’s most memorable aural images- “Break my arms around the one I love, and be forgiven by the time my lover comes.”
The mood of the album is also difficult to easily pinpoint- whereas before they nailed their ‘sad songs’ colours to the mast- 'Alligator' is a trickier, less-navigated emotional journey. While the majority of the tracks are downbeat and introspective, there is seemingly always a pervading sense of hope. Likewise, the more upbeat sentiments expressed cannot shake their composers’ keen sense of irony, particularly noticeable in the likes of 'All The Wine'. In Berninger’s own words he has given “a permanent piece of my medium-sized American heart”.There are no weak links in the album’s song list, as each track is a revelation; and it’s all rounded off with 'Mr. November', which provides a feeling of the experience coming full circle for this writer. Whereas the group’s earlier releases could be seen as somewhat two-dimensional sad songs, they are showcased in glorious 3D Technicolor here.