Album review

The National - Alligator

The National - Alligator

Relocate the Tindersticks or the Czars to the restless buzz of New York and you’re close to the sound of The National, who began to build a reputation as intense, hopelessly doomed romantics with 2001’s self-titled debut. By 2003’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (partly helmed by Interpol producer Peter Katis and arranged by Padma Newsome, member of criminally-overlooked avant-classicists Clogs), people began to take notice - not least in these pages, where it nestled in our year-best shortlist.

With hangdog frontman Matt Berninger’s baritone somewhere between Jarvis Cocker and Leonard Cohen, and rich velvet tunes loaded with spite and self-loathing, The National were undeniably seductive. Music that many took to be studied self-pity, however, was suffused with narcissistic humour and deadpan shock tactics. Alligator, their new label debut, expands on both.

On “Karen”, for instance, Berninger pursues a relationship to escape his own lack of direction, and is faced with a truly disturbing potential father-in-law: “It’s a common fetish for a doting man/ To ballerina on the coffee table/ Cock in hand.” On the Bunnymen/Joy Division spiral of “Lit Up”, the self-deprecation extends to the music itself, “This sound I make/ That only lasts a season/ And only heard by bedroom kids who buy it for that reason”.

The band themselves – two pairs of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dressner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf – judge it near-perfectly, delicately poised between liberty and restraint. Lyrically, “Val Jester” is the simplest thing here, but the swollen strings and circular arpeggios elicit a world of heartbreak on their own. With humming guitars to the forefront, there’s an anxiety forever threatening to simmer over into full-on paranoia. In this respect – even without the vocals – it could only be the product of a teeming metropolis.

It is Berninger’s fragile ego and his luxuriant words which dominate, though. “I’m a perfect piece of ass,” he proclaims in the shadowy strut of “All The Wine” (previously on last year’s excellent mini-album, Cherry Tree). And by the closing “Mr November” he is almost desperately upbeat: “The English are waiting,” he notes, as the deadline set by new label Beggar’s Banquet looms, “And I don’t know what to do/ In my best clothes/ I’m the new blue blood/ I’m the new white hope”. Remarkably, it’s no idle boast.

By Rob Hughes

Rating: 5 / 10

Released on Beggars Banquet


Newsletter


Editor's Letter

Dave Edmunds at 70! Happy birthday, boyo!


First of all, there was the somewhat staggering recent news that Captain Sensible was about to turn 60. Then a few weeks ago, Nick Lowe was 65. And today, it turns out, Dave Edmunds, Nick’s former best mate and partner in Rockpile...