In The National song “I Need My Girl,” lead vocalist Matt Berninger’s friend Davey tells him that he looks taller. This comes after Matt — whose simultaneously booming and stuffy voice can only be compared to the likes of Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave — assures himself that he is both “good” and “grounded”. If Davey does think that Matt looks taller, it is for sure a compliment and a good thing. Maybe he has been slouching lately and being all 5’7” when he’s actually 5’9”. Maybe Davey knows something is up with Matt and he cannot think of anything else to comment on except for something as hollow as his height. And what about all the other friends Matt mentions in his back catalog of songs: Jennifer, Karen, John, Abel? I’d like to know if they agree with Davey’s comment about Matt appearing a bit more spinally virtuous. One can suppose Matt did not get any taller physically but that perhaps he is simply maturing, out of his youth shell into his real adult self and without even realizing it. This theme, for me, defines The National: the inability or unwanting to grow up when you can’t stop the inevitable passing of time.
The National formed in Cincinnati, Ohio in the ’90s and went through several members, finally setting on the current five made up of not one, but two sets of brothers. Aaron and Bryce Dressner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf make up 80% of the band with Matt, the lonely lead up front beneath the bright lights. With ties like this, you can almost imagine the band forming: “Hey, my brother can play drums if we need a drummer.” Or “I mean, my brother is sick on the guitar, but I’d rather this band be my thing and not his.” The organic way in which all these men met solidifies, for me, not only their authenticity but also the notion that this band is truly a family. Releasing two solid LPs and an EP in the early aughts, The National did not hit their stride until 2005’s Alligator, when they released a solid set of sweeping rock songs and began quietly defining an entire generation of young adults reluctant to admit the sun is setting on their springtide.
The following summer in 2006, my friend handed me a burnt copy of Alligator and shot me one of those You Gotta Hear This looks. What happens next after someone is handed a National album for the first time is that they take note of Matt Berninger’s voice. It is a natural baritone sound that pushes its way from Berninger’s viscera through his throat and out into the cosmos. Undoubtedly forlorn, is it possible for such a cavernous croon to be ultimately happy? The National are professionals at darkness. Layering minor chords over superb drumming and at first tame, then explosive guitar work. The result is a band that embraces the fact they are all men and a lead singer who is not afraid to show he is delicately wired.
The National leads this contemporary movement of what I may or may not have coined Gentleman Rock. See the likes of The Walkmen, Grizzly Bear, Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes, for bands that began on the tongues of college radio DJs and ended up between the pages of GQ. And this is nothing to be ashamed of. All great acts deserve a following and GQ has some pretty amazing articles. While Matt Berninger isn’t exactly giving tutorials on how to change tires or rip phonebooks in two, he is telling stories of what it’s like to become a man, or more generally, what it’s like to become an adult human. Where on Alligator he recalls being carried in the arms of cheerleaders, he later recounts on 2007’s elegant Boxer being “mistaken for strangers by your own friends, when you pass them at night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights.” Matt’s unorganized evolution is evident right before our ears. He’s trading in the images of youth (e.g. pissing in the sink, tossing records out of windows, spiked lemonade) for more images of aging (e.g. “a bright white beautiful heaven hanging over me”) and doing so in no particular order. In “Apartment Story,” he sings of “looking for somewhere to stand and stay, I leaned on the wall and the wall leaned away.” A perfect example of the ride we’re on with The National. Once you think you’ve got it figured out, you’re thrown a curveball.
When The National first appeared on the scene, they were considered by many an alt-country band, which I suppose I can hear on the earlier records, but have now become so much more of a rock band that craft tight and tiny symphonies. Their songs begin as a storm might: the clouds and thunder roll, a light drizzle from the sky, until finally water is pouring out from above, your body completely unprepared for the wet taking over, the repetition of each step you take in puddles completely hypnotic, until things lighten up almost immediately, as if on your command. And you keep moving forward, shedding but carrying the parts of your soaked self to wherever you’re headed next. And Berninger sings: “And that’s how we like it and that’s all we want. Something to cry for and something to hunt.”