Formed in Cincinatti, Ohio in the early 90´s, this band came into it´s own after moving to Brooklyn 1999. Their first album release went by pretty unrecognized, while second offering “Sad songs for dirty lovers” (2003) was what made me aware of their music. “Cardinal song” still stands out as my first contact with this unique group. So obviously something to watch out for.
Further output included the “Cherry Tree” EP and the next album “Alligator”, released in 2005. Exhibiting songwriting and performances way above what they´ve previously achieved, this album was a game-changer turning the group into indie-rock favourites all over the board. Great songs and great performances, increasingly frantic and complex, firmly establishing the band as a force to respect and cherish.
Next album “Boxer” (released 2007) further developed and in some ways mellowed their sound, as well as spawning the song “Fake Empire” of Barack Obama-fame. Turning indie-intensity to reflective modern day rock was in many ways the reason for this band´s rise from obscurity to greatness. While not generally commercially succesfull the songs created a place in contemporary music not filled by anybody else. And as always, the baritone voice and melodic sensibility of Matt Berninger led the way.
“High violet” released in 2010 was the album meant to break the group in larger circles and showed a level of quality combined with commercial appeal not previously present. Fantastic songs played by a band at the heights of their ability. The relative lack of public response to these superlative efforts were understandably discouraging, and the band was seen to take a deep breath while planning it´s future. How a group of musicians can produce songs like these without making a significant commercial impact says a lot about the state of the music industry. For a band that has spent their intellectual property making songs like these it´s not that easy to determine the best way forward.
Next album “Trouble will find me” (2013) chose to continue the history of strong songwriting and performances through a set of numbers building on the accomplishments of “High violet”. I have difficulty in understanding why this record had less of an impact than the previous one. Up to this point, I don´t believe that The National has made a more accomplished set of songs. While not universally considered one of their best, I still think this is one of the most skillful efforts of one of the best bands of their generation. The general feel of this record is of extremely gifted presentations of great songs by a group at the heights of their power. For once, the CD-booklet is actually put to good use by portraying unique contemporary artworks. I would absolutely be prepared to sever with a significant amount of money to own the Jessie Hanson piece “Time before, time after”.
While being their so far longest period between albums, the time until the release of latest effort “Sleep well beast” hasn´t been spent indolent. Different musical collaborations, movie scores and more has kept the members of the band busy. When the new record arrived it was without much fanfare and expectations on my part. Early listenings didn´t rock my world and I needed the nudging of my colleauge D to really discover the greatness of this album.
The laid-back beginnings of “Nobody else will be there” followed by the U 2 guitar of “Day I die”. The intricate melodics of “Walk it back”, political significance disregarded, replaced by the anthemic “The system only dreams in total darkness”. I don´t think we´ve ever heard The National do such a simple but effective guitar riff. So sweet.
“Turtleneck” rocks out in a simple way that is not common for this not that simple band. “Guilty party” is one of their most beautiful tunes, with a complex rhythm only matched by the crystal clear melody line. I wish every song ever produced would be this good.
“Dark side of the gym” is in my opinion the guilty pleasure of this album. Sort of cheesy with both a verse and a chorus seriously romantic, while still lyrically odd. The fact that it is easy to play on an acoustic guitar only makes it better.
Liking this album that much made the first Swedish concerts by The National so much more interesting. They did two shows in Stockholm and I managed to attend the second, on Sunday 5th of November. Matt Berninger started off by stating that the previous night had been so much fun that tonight´s concert would have to be a “short and shitty show”. That ´s good. Always underpromise and overperform.
With a set-list heavy on the latest album but with so many of their earlier great songs it proved to be a fine compromise between the new and the old. While the playing was more than perfect, the singing compensated the technical difficulties of an increasingly hoarse Berninger with huge amounts of heart and soul. While not one of the best concerts in my life, this show is still hugely rememberable.