The National are intimidated by female beauty, spellbound and damaged by it. They fear it somehow criticises or diminishes them. It’s hurt them; they don’t trust it. They sing of leaving it well alone, for sanity’s sake, but can’t practise what they preach. This is the weak and helpless art of male self-pity at its finest.
The usual names crop up in comparisons: Cohen, Eitzel, Tindersticks, Dulli. But if The National were copyists, this wouldn’t work, it’d be parody. It’s not parody. It’s heinously bitter and twisted, and hurting bad, and you believe it.
Their second album, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, broke their cover last year. Five men from New York via Ohio, they are the brothers Dessner, the brothers Devendorf, and singer Matt Berninger. Violinist Padma Newsome gilds the belladonna. Otherwise they’re a rock band, albeit a restrained one. You may sometimes hear in them shades of Interpol, The Sound or early U2. Often, though, they’re gentler, letting Berninger’s defeated voice and outstanding lyrics do the job.
A mini album, this: six new songs and a (very Joy Division) live pass at “Murder Me Rachael” (from the last album). The French call it “dark rock”. Facile, but they’re not wrong. “Wasp Nest” comes in mock-innocent before declaring, “Get over here, I wanna kiss your skinny throat”. Berninger is all candid lust and implicit fatalism, and on the phenomenal “All The Wine” he drawls: “I’m a festival, I’m a parade… I’m so sorry but the motorcade will have to go around me this time” with all the joy of a dying man.
As with all great poetic works of despair and self-loathing, there’s fine-gauge humour here. Also, mandolins like jingly raindrops. “My head plays it over and over”, grumbles one refrain, which will suffice as a summary. “Don’t interrupt me…”