The National (Beggars Banquet, April 12)
I could say, Let’s all lounge in our smoking jackets on pleather sofas, drink martinis and discuss seedy politics while there’s a subtext of sexual ferment thick in the air, and let’s pretend that we’re blasé about the entire New Year’s thing, that we’re not anxious about not having a date to whatever geeky underground rock function we’re attending. Let’s pretend we’d actually prefer to sit around talking about the best and worst music of 2005 than to be working our way into the pants of a gorgeous drunk person. And during this discussion of best and worst music we’ll stumble across the albums that best describe our sophisticatedly hapless metropolitan lives, so let’s place Alligator here. Let’s pretend that The National has created for us spectating music critics an anthem of an album that let’s us lament our repressed emotional tenderness, our oversexed, over-tortured, sentimental lives in the city’s chic underworld.
This is when everyone looks at me like I’m a moron. But hey, a music geek can dream, can’t she? Actually, no, she can’t. So I won’t say this. I will say that The National has a gift for musically blanketing languor in all of the pretty and incongruous facades that we machinate every day in our trivial lives. Alligator is like an eccentric novel in which The National rummages through its thematic and often stirring lyrics, its cast of cynical characters and classy manic depression to fashion polished sound vignettes that are as beautiful as they are dismal.
With this album The National has moved from its alt-country fizzle and exploded into a listless folk rock that better suits its urbane narratives of life in the American city. This change is immediately apparent on the album opener, “Secret Meeting,” which consists of a relaxed yet mature style that’s fresher than anything the group’s done before, but doesn’t veer far from the characteristic National sound that makes it an individualized band. The subtly layered vocals and instrumentation--sustained, undulating guitar lines, prominent drum underpinning--interplay with Matt Berringer’s bleak vocals to create a sexy nonchalance that rivals Leonard Cohen or Lou Reed.
Equally unflappable is “Karen,” which has Berninger at his most jaded singing, “Karen put me in a chair/Fuck me and make me a drink/I’ve lost direction and I’m past my peak.” Some of the ennui is lost in the musical interaction of minor and major hooks in the bridge and chorus. It’s a song of desperation clinging to hope that introduces two of the album’s chief characters: Karen, who appears again--namely on the album’s climactic “City Middle” and perhaps allusively on other tracks--and also America. Berninger pleads, “Listen. You better wait for me/No, I wouldn’t go out alone into America,” and thus the paradoxical beauty of egotism and disillusionment begins.
The primary backdrop of the album is New York, which appears as the hard-hitting and sleazy Manhattan on rocker “Lit Up,” and resigned in the reflective “Daughters of the Soho Riots.” The tone of this latter tune has all the purity and coolness of sixties folk; you can almost hear Paul Simon lamenting over the piano and acoustic guitar, “Everything I remember, I remember wrong.” Alligator is perhaps The National’s Bookends: at once it’s heavy and delicate, playing upon themes that are not exclusively American, but The National labels them as such and so the emotions and predicaments are intrinsically urban and pessimistic. “Looking for Astronauts” sounds relatively blithe with prominent violin and the light, meandering guitars of Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and the active bass line of Scott Devendorf. But Berninger sings “You know you have a permanent piece/Of my medium-sized American heart;” he identifies himself as this romantically melancholy figure and thus, while the couple is looking towards the stars he’s simultaneously musing, “Isn’t a little too late for this?”
And what album about the woes of the upper middleclass is complete without alluding to the spirit-crushing world of corporate America? On “Baby, We’ll be Fine” the protagonist prays for his boss’ praise; he puts on an argyle sweater and a smile after a forty-five minute shower and says to himself, “I don’t know how to do this.” He lives through, “stilted, pretending days” and tries to convince himself repeatedly of the song title’s ironic hope, but ends with the mantra, “I’m so sorry for everything.”
Alligator is mostly wearisome, but there are moments when this lassitude is camouflaged and so listening to the disc doesn’t turn into an exhausting affair. On “Abel” there’s a driving bass and heroic guitar to rival any eighties Americana rocker, and while we don’t overlook the fact that Berninger is roaring, “My mind’s not all right,” it is easy to miss that he’s not singing it in an errant moment of disaffected angst but in one of regret and desperation. On “All the Wine” the hero is “a perfect piece of ass/Like every Californian.” Berninger creates a delicious juxtaposition between his stoic timber and the arrogant lyrics, so that the effect of “I’m a festival, I’m a parade” is cleverly poignant rather than comic. The National’s characteristic polyphonic, single tone guitar lines gradually build into distorted chords that are harnessed and saved from becoming an overdone, standard rock climax.
“City Middle,” utilizes similar techniques and a sophisticated layering of sounds. Violin floats along with bassoon and glistening guitar, creating a slight drama that’s neither pretentious or hokey. The overall effect is open and emaciated so without careful listening it’s easy to overlook that all these discrete parts are happening simultaneously. The lyrics supply the reference for the album title (“I want to go gator around the warm beds of beginners”), and Karen has returned as the protagonist’s means to the city middle “where it’s random, and it’s common versus common,” just like the “weird memories” he has of her “pissing in a sink.” As the second to last track on the album it serves as a fitting climax. The lyrics are remorseful and reminiscent, reflecting the revelation that this American life is banal but at the same time all the romance that we crave and have spent our lives chasing. It’s a painful concept relevant to the ironic urban collective, and in this conventionality negates any chance of anyone turning Alligator into an album manufactured to deflect us from the fact that The National is going through a midlife crisis. Because they aren’t. There isn’t a disingenuous note on this album. Alligator is a beautiful crystallization of a band not afraid to shed its skin and reveal the beauty of its maturing pains.