Band of the Week: The National

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Fun Fact: Guitarist Bryce Dessner also plays in avant-classical collective Clogs with The National’s go-to orchestral wiz Padma Newsome.
Why They're Worth Watching: Vocalist Matt Berninger’s low-slung baritone proffers some of the best lyrics in indie rock.
For Fans Of: Leonard Cohen, American Music Club, Morrissey

Like a dogged clock-puncher, The National has labored for years in obscurity,

writing record after record of sharp, sorrowful indie rock obsessed with the tragedy and absurdity of this thing we call “living.” The band's biggest (and slowest-burning) success came in the form of 2005's Alligator, a fiery album fixated on the internal conflicts we all experience. Call it "where am I going, what am I doing and when can I sit down to my next beer?" music. Boxer, the baited-breath follow-up, stays within this thematic course, touching on loss, confusion and the sense of isolation that comes along with growing older in a city that remains forever young.

Not exactly uncharted territory, but what sets The National apart is vocalist Matt Berninger's even-handed eye for scenery and detail, his knack for rummaging through the clutter of New York City with wit, charm and discerning judgment. With Boxer, even more so than its predecessor, his words seem shrewdly selective and carefully deployed, commanding empathy with both cruelty and levity.

“The juxtaposition of that humor and that sincerity is what I think makes [Matt’s lyrics] resonate with people,” says bassist Aaron Dessner, slowly pulling himself from sleep in his Brooklyn apartment after a late-night practice.

On the achy “Mistaken For Strangers,” Berninger tells his “showered and blue-blazered” protagonist that he wouldn’t want an angel watching over him, only to follow the blow with a bellowed punch-line, “Surprise, surprise they wouldn’t want to watch.” It’s at once painfully sad and depressingly funny.

Like the lyrics, the band's music picks and chooses from the tools of NYC rock (even some of the city's musicians, as Sufjan Stevens has his turn here, and Padma Newsome of Clogs contributes all string arrangements). But The National - rounded out by Bryce Dessner on guitar, and siblings Scott and Bryan Devendorf on guitar and drums, respectively - implements them distinctly, forgoing urgency and claustrophobic posturing in favor of an over-arching reservation. Of course, Aaron maintains that the band is still writing rock songs. “There's just less desperation,” he says. “It's just a lot more subtle.”

Indeed, Alligator had a temper, and it flared on tracks like "Abel" and "Mr. November." So was there ever any fear of disappointing fans who’d come to expect aggression? Not according to Aaron.

“When we were actually making the record there was this feeling like, ‘Wait, where's 'Mr. November?’" he recalls. "But we couldn't endeavor to write ‘Mr November’ again. People would just be like, ‘There's the 'Mr. November' of this record,' you know? It just felt like that would be kind of dishonest.”

Also in Music