The National – Alligator

Stunning third album from Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati five-piece

Trending Now

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

Advertisement

Latest Issue

Bruce Springsteen, Uncut’s Review Of 2021, Jason Isbell, Yasmin Williams, Jonny Greenwood, The Weather Station, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, the Beach Boys, The Coral, and Marvin Gaye
Advertisement

Features

Yasmin Williams: “I wanted to imagine things getting better”

Released in January, Yasmin Williams’ mesmerising album Urban Driftwood respected the old traditions of folk music but simultaneously made fresh currency out of them. Stephen Deusner meets Williams in Nashville to map the course of her incredible year since – and her plans for 2022. “I’m pretty optimistic about the future,” she says. “At least, way more than I was a year ago…”
Advertisement