in Retrospecticus

I feel like I should be pretty excited about The National’s new album, considering these guys are one of my favorite bands of the last decade or so, but I can’t really say that I am.  It probably has to do with the fact that I’ve been distracted by a bunch of really good albums that’ve come out recently, as well as the fact that The National aren’t the most appropriate band for listening to in the summer, especially compared to the summer jam-packed album Daft Punk are also releasing tomorrow.  There’s also the fact that The National have made a career out of crafting albums that take a while to grow on you, so it’s probably safe to say that the brilliance of Trouble Will Find Me might not hit me until a few weeks after my first listen.  But maybe this retrospecticus will get me excited, as it should make it apparent that The National are very very good at making albums I like.

The National (2001)

the-national-self-titled-cover-artListening to the first two National albums for the first time this year, it’s become clear to me that The National are a band that pride themselves on sticking to their guns.  Even on this first album, they have their signature anxiety-ridden indie rock sound in order, and with each following album they’ve honed this sound in different ways.  This debut in contrast is a bit looser than their subsequent efforts, with the songs not being quite as meticulous or memorable for that matter, but you can still see shades of the mopey tenderness that would make their later albums so durable.  It’s kind of hard to see why The National were lumped in with the alt-country scene in their early years, even though there’s a little bit of twang in some of the songs, but not much.  Though I suppose The National have always been a hard band to categorize, which might explain their longevity.

Favorite Tracks: “Beautiful Head”, “Cold Girl Fever”, “American Mary”

Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (2003)

The-National-Sad-Songs-For-Dirty-LoversIt’s a shame that The National seem to act like their first two albums never existed, because Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers is pretty great.  There’s still a little bit of that country influence in these songs, but you can also see a kind of confidence starting to appear in rousing rockers like “Murder Me Rachel” and “Available”.  Also, you can see singer Matt Berninger starting to hone his knack for creating lyrics that exemplify what it is to be an anxious young male in the 21st century.  There’s also a sense of playfulness to Sad Songs that sees the band still tinkering with different sonic textures, despite the fact that they seemed to pretty much have their shit together in terms of deciding on what kind of band they wanted to be at this point.

Favorite Tracks: “Murder Me Rachel”, “Fashion Coat”, “Lucky You”

Alligator (2005)

national-alligatorIn today’s information-driven age, in which everyone seems to instantly have an opinion on everything, Alligator was something of a rarity: a classic that no one initially realized was a classic.  There wasn’t a ton of hullabaloo in the wake of Alligator‘s release, and it doesn’t even seem that the album appeared on a whole lot of “best of the year” lists.  Yet slowly but surely, Alligator managed to worm it’s way in to critics, and eventually indie music fans’ hearts.  You can of course accredit this to The National’s unassuming sound, though it now seems kind of ridiculous, considering Alligator is so completely stacked with great songs.  Tracks like “Secret Meeting” and “All The Wine” show guitarists/twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s ability to intertwine their guitar parts in ways that are assuredly tender, while exhilarating tracks like “Abel” and “Mr. November” show the band in uncharacteristically rocking fashion.  Honestly, I can’t think of many albums from the last ten years that I’ve spent as much time with, as each time I put on Alligator it just seems to fit perfectly, like an old winter sweater.

Favorite Tracks: “Karen”, “Abel”, “Mr. November”

Boxer (2007)

national-boxerIn the wake of Alligator, the band’s fourth album very well could have been The National’s big chance to hit the big time, and yet Boxer sees the band turning their sound even more inward.  Sure, songs like “Mistaken For Strangers” and “Brainy” have this propulsive quality, thanks to the frenetic drumming of Brian Devendorf, but the back half of Boxer feels like it’s almost entirely made of contemplative ballads.  Considering I’m a big fan of the more rocking numbers on Alligator, this probably should bother me, but it doesn’t because I think The National are just as good at indulging their more introspective side.  There’s a subsiding darkness to Boxer overall, yet there’s still something very warm and comforting about the way songs like “Slow Show” and “Gospel” are able to capture the nature of modern romance in a very real and intimate way.

Favorite Tracks: “Fake Empire”, “Apartment Story”, “Gospel”

High Violet (2010)

The-National-High-Violet-3Speaking of darkness, here’s an album that makes a point of wallowing in the The National’s more manic depressive side, with morosely titled songs like “Sorrow” and “Afraid Of Everyone”.  Fortunately, The National have a pretty innate gift for turning darkness and misery into something full of beauty, which High Violet demonstrates quite nicely.  Grandiosity seems to be The National’s main tactic in achieving this beauty, with many of the songs turning the band’s more orchestral tendencies into something that’s expansive, but still very grounded in the minutiae of everyday life.  Let’s just hope The National can continue to magnificently capture those small details as they make their way through their own anxiety-ridden version of middle age.

Favorite Tracks: “Terrible Love”, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, “England”