The National: High Anxiety
The band’s self-titled, self-released debut came in 2001 before they had ever played a live show. “The first record was us seeing, ‘Hey, is there anything here worth being a band about?’” says Berninger. Songs like “Cold Girl Fever,” “American Mary,” “Bitters & Absolut” and “Anna Freund” displayed the ingredients of a band with significant potential. The group had already formulated its sound—a precise, almost baroque brand of indie rock with Berninger’s voice in the center buttressed by a variety of instrumentation that managed to sound spacious yet invitingly warm. And while the singer would refine his lyrics in subsequent albums into Dickinson-like abstraction and poetics—evocative images splintered with variety of off-kilter literary devices and anthropomorphic juxtapositions—the initial sketches of soured and pained human experience revealed themselves.
The following Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers two years later—there might not be a more fitting title for a National album—saw the band build on the debut’s blueprint. “_Sad Songs_ was us trying to figure out what kind of band we wanted to be,” Berninger says. “We tried a million different things.” Precise guitar figures, sonic layering and a rhythmic intensity defined the Peter Katis-produced effort. They also included a menagerie of electronic atmospherics that floated through the songs like dandelion blossoms.
Numbers like “Slipping Husband” (“You’ll end up talking to the ghost/ Of your wife as if you knew her/ Your eyes will put her everywhere”) and “Available” (“Did you dress me down and liquor me up/ To make me last for the minute”) heard Berninger’s vocals occasionally spill into a cathartic howl. The gut-wrenching effect, with the band at a full gallop, was riveting.
Finding success in England and France, the group decided, according to Bryan, to “strike while the iron was hot.” The result was 2004’s often-overlooked seven-song Cherry Tree EP. “It was where we were like, ‘OK, if we’re going to do this, then let’s try to be one of the best bands in the world—why not?” says Berninger. “We knew at that point we never going to be The Strokes. We also knew we were never going to be Pavement or The Sex Pistols. Those loose, crazy, fun, capturing-magic bands.”
Those bands’ personalities seemed more off-the-cuff, natural and casual to The National. “We looked at bands like Wilco and Radiohead,” says the singer. “Somewhere between those bands was where we thought we might someday try to get to.”
The entire band agrees that Cherry Tree was a tipping point. While fans may pick the EP’s triumphant “All the Wine” as the touchstone, the group unanimously points to “All Dolled Up in Straps” as the most valuable and assuring. A slow, woozy, waltz-like song, it reveals—as does the album as a whole—the members to be musical tacticians like their aforementioned influences.
Now signed to the heralded Beggar’s Banquet label, the band group delivered its third album, Alligator, in 2005 to an overwhelming amount of superlatives from the press. And, to be fair, it’s an incredibly strong record from start to finish. While Berninger’s vocals remained largely the same— rough-hewn, gritty and manic—the band’s structures around them grew in elegance (“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” “City Middle”), dimensionality (“Secret Meeting,” “Looking for Astronauts”) and intensity (“Mr. November,” “Abel”).
“The things that got our band noticed we largely avoided altogether on Boxer,” says Berninger in reference to the band’s following album released two years later. “Like ‘Abel’ and me screaming my head off. Boxer was a different sort of record and there was anxiety: Are we shooting ourselves in the foot by putting out this dark and stately record and not just making a brash, screamy rock record?”
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