On their third recording, the National strikes a delicate balance between light and dark, fast and slow, American and British. While their sound is undeniably tinged with darkness, it isn't gloomy or depressing. This impression is mostly due to Matt Berninger's deep baritone, which brings to mind such sensitive, but manly Brit vocalists as Scott Walker and Stuart Staples of the Tindersticks. The National, however, are American. Formed in Brooklyn in 1999, the quintet hails from Cincinatti and doesn't sound much like a New York Band (Interpol, the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, etc.). Instead, they could be Midwestern or even Canadian in the way they combine alt-country, chamber-pop, and post-punk angst, like Toronto's Royal City or Montreal's Arcade Fire. Often compared to Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits, the National's music is actually faster-paced and has a lighter, almost jaunty touch. In other words: they rock. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
Review by James Christopher Monger
The National may sound like a garage band turned down, but there's as much primal energy lurking behind Alligator as in any mop-topped group of city kids with bloodstained Danelectros in a dusty warehouse. While Matt Berninger's lyrics and conversational delivery rely heavily on the kind of literate self-absorption that fuels so much of the indie rock scene today, he never comes off as preachy or unaware that the world would manage just fine without him; rather, he uses metaphor and humor as bullet points for a profound sense of displacement and anger. Out-of-the-blue statements like "f*ck me and make me a drink," from the brooding but lovely "Karen," are effective because the listener is brought into the story slowly, almost amiably, before being led to the plank. Berninger's wry, filthy, and often eloquently sad tales of materialism, sex, and loneliness are augmented by the stellar duel-sibling attack of Aaron Dessner (guitar) and Bryce Dessner (guitar) and Scott Devendorf (guitar/bass) and Bryan Devendorf (drums), who flesh out each track with so many little creative flourishes that it takes a few listens to break them down into palatable portions. There are upbeat moments found within -- "Lit Up" and "Looking for Astronauts" -- but for the most part the National are content with playing the genial fatalists, and while "All the Wine" seems designed to serve as the record's desolate backbone, "Baby, We'll Be Fine," with its quick changes, lush orchestration, and winsome refrain of "I'm so sorry for everything" is, despite an elegiac delivery, Alligator's loneliest track, and like each part of this fine collection of city-weary poetry, it's as brief as it is affecting.
[Beggars Banquet; 2005]
The National are stuck somewhere in the emotional recesses of life, the characters in their songs adrift on roads both literal and metaphorical. They're stuck between the country and the city, but not in the suburban or exurban senses-- their music reveals the parallels between small-town everybody-knows-everybody drama and big-city alienation. The Brooklyn (via Cincinnati) quintet engage with their American anxiety with a somewhat European elegance, and Alligator-- their third album and first for Beggars Banquet-- finds them pushing the tempos and trying on bigger shoes without losing the stately sense of pacing and dour melody that made their first two albums so pleasing.
Drummer Bryan Devendorf is the backbone of Alligator, his efficient, well-textured timekeeping featuring high in the mix and neatly delineating the band's newfound sense of rhythmic consistency. The music around him moves between lushness and austerity, bursting with chamber pop ornament and collapsing into wasted after-hours reverie. Matt Berninger's dry baritone deadpan is strangely emotional-- at times he almost sounds too tired of life to aim for a high note, and it brings an odd honesty to lines like "I'm sorry for everything." As he repeats the line over the violins and roiling guitars of "Baby, We'll Be Fine", he seems as if he's not only apologizing for everything he's ever done, but also everything that's ever happened that he couldn't control.
The slower, piano-driven death-pop of "Karen" offers some unusual chord progressions as Berninger warns a fading lover: "Whatever you do, listen/ You better wait for me/ No, I wouldn't go out alone into America." "This isn't me, you just haven't seen my good side yet," he tells her, but he's obviously doomed and he grows more desperate as metaphorical black birds circle his bed. On "Lit Up", he grows more confident, even swaggering: "My body guard shows a revolver to anyone who asks" he deadpans gracefully over jagged electric guitars, while his band shouts along for the chorus. The shouted chorus returns for the "Thunder Road"-sized rocker "Abel", the closest the National have come to writing an anthem.
Massed vocals and backing harmonies are two of the few things the National have added to their sound since their last album, and though Alligator is satisfying and engaging, it's not quite as bracing as their stellar sophomore outing, 2003's Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. Still, the band's nocturnal vision of American pavement and deteriorated personal relations is engrossing, revealing itself slowly, peeling back the luxuriant layers and exposing intricate detail.
-Joe Tangari, April 05, 2005