A Look At The National, 10 Years After “Alligator”

Thomas Johnson explores the power of self reflection, The National's discography, and how it helped him get through a Bonnaroo ER stay.
By    September 30, 2015

Thomas Johnson knows we’re gonna have good times, good times

A little over ten years ago, the National released Alligator, their third and “breakthrough album.” It starts with frontman Matt Berninger introverted and apologizing: “I’m sorry I missed you / I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain.”  There’s never been a clearer distillation of their ethos, before or since.

Since the beginning, The National provided a sound of withdrawal; music for when you need to break from existence and retreat to the back of your mind where you can admit your fear and apprehension. Music for when you’re nervous about going to a party to see people you cut contact with years ago, or people you’re trying to crop out. Theirs is a discography of breakup albums for people still mulling it over. Respites for when the outside world becomes inordinate, implodes, and all you’re left with are the waves of self-doubt and realization that you’re the reason it’s so overwhelming. Adult music.

Hence, someone once told me at a party that the National were just “dad rock.” They then reiterated to involve the term “adult contemporary.” At the time I attributed the claim to the fact other people obviously don’t want to listen to “Fake Empire” at a party. It was a terrible conversation. Still though, some years later the label doesn’t sit correctly. Dad rock carries the more often than not well-earned stigma of being outdated and dull, stuck in a time lapse where bootcut jeans and New Balance 660’s are still pretty slick. They may not be the most exciting band slotted at the 2nd tier spots on major music festivals, but they’re not quite repping the same type of beer I drank at that party  — only partially because Berninger has a habit of guzzling a bottle of wine on stage.

The label of “Dad rock,” is far less fitting than the archetype it represents. Adult contemporary sounds like a generic term for a radio station that plays a lot of Michael Bublé. The National may make music that your father could listen to, but fits more as a soundtrack to a contemporary adult. They don’t get played in clubs when you’re rolling, but they could slip into perfect rotation when you come home and come down alone.

Their currency is anxiety and honesty. Taylor Swift may have a song for every break up (depending on how many celebrity boyfriends you’ve gone through) and dramatic introverts like Kid Cudi may paint a portrait of lonely adolescence smoking alone in the basement, but the band of brothers crafted a discography that entwines all those branches (save dating John Mayer.) There’s a self-awareness about their music that eliminates the auxiliary drama that comes with real life turmoil. When all the accessories are stripped away, all that’s left is the honest nagging asking questions that have been collecting cobwebs. Maybe T Swift and Scott Mescudi could forge lasting relationships if they took a step back and realized they might be part of the problem. They wouldn’t move as many units, but catharsis and introspection has never been about financial stability.

The confessionals scattered throughout their six albums and handful of EP’s often come in the form of third parties; vague mediums used to distance themselves from personal admissions that are just concrete enough to know they’re not bullshitting. It’s exponentially easier to convey something personal when you don’t have to be the one to say it.  Over the course of their catalogue, the National has penned a small novel’s worth of characters. Joe, Jennifer, Ada, Jessica etc. have all fucked up or been fucked over. Their stories have run together, fallen apart and connected by their common denominator; they’re all thinly veiled attempts by Matt Berninger to distance himself from the actuality he’s created for himself.

What’s special about theses characters is that they’re just that: characters. No one is going to be fooled into thinking Ada has a government issued ID, but it’s not a stretch to imagine the exasperation “she’s” caused. That’s why they’re a front to launder their thoughts. A real person, i.e. someone we know has a life outside the spotlight just isn’t as relatable to the average person as a figment of a creative mind. There may be a backstory, but not enough details to hinder us from projecting and accepting our own passions, worries, and fears onto something we identify with.

For all the characters, it always boils down to a confession. The National grapples just as much with needing reassurance that they’re good enough while knowing they might not be. Not many a band would so readily admit to nervous jealousy as they do on “Friend Of Mine” where Berninger implores a still dwindling flame to fake a heart attack just so she could ditch a dinner party he wasn’t invited too (John threw the party. Fuck John). Its a crack in the shell; a moment of weakness where the inability to move on overcomes all rationality and common sense, the same helplessness revisited on High Violet’s “Sorrow” where he brazenly admits “I don’t want to get over you.” The same helplessness and self-deprecation of “About Today.” And “Slipped.” And “Exile Vilify.” But even though it’s the same band venting about the same things everyone needs to vent about, the disclosures always take place through someone else.

They’re half-hearted escape artists. The thought of leaving everything behind is buried in everything they do, but they never get far. On “Geese of Beverly Road,” Berninger comforts and somewhat naively offers a chance of ignorance. He sells a potential runaway from the real world, where they can be the heirs of a glimmering world, where an innocent fantasy (the decreasingly platonic relationship between waitress and customer) is grounded enough to turn a blind eye to all the others watching.

“Come be my waitress and serve me tonight. Serve me the sky tonight with a big slice of lemon.”

It’s a last ditch aspiration. Maybe not the most romantic fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless. When shit hits the fan, fantasizing becomes less daydream and more necessary reclusion. The hint of citrus he asks her to bring him isn’t as convoluted a metaphor or allusion to age and jaded cynicism as genius.com will have you believe. With the majority of their lyrics, as Berninger has frequently pointed out in the past, there’s a wry humor delivered with every aspect of what some might see as pretention. It’s merely another detail, a humble distraction to not have leave his make-believe.

In 2013, less than 24 hours before their performance at Bonnaroo, I found myself alone in a Tennessee emergency room facing the possibility that I might not be going home with my legs and/or my last meal might be a chicken kebab and cost effective vodka infused lemonade (still trying to figure out which one is more deflating). There’s an odd sense of calm that settles in during moments like that, ease at the loneliness that would otherwise be glaring. A more sober man would have played something hopeful. KC and the Sunshine Band maybe. I chose the National’s “Green Gloves.” It leads off with one of the most gentle guitar lines to ever grace a record. Just a few quick strums that contain all the comfort lyrics about an anxiety everyone has but wont admit. Yet the lyrics do, beautifully.

“Oh I’m out of touch with all my friends, they’re out somewhere getting wasted / Hope they’re staying glued together, I have hopes for them.”

The sweet heartbreaker, which Berninger explained in a 2008 interview, boils down to trying to put yourself in the headspace of someone that you won’t be seeing anymore. Another roundabout. I wasn’t aware at the time. I figured if this is how I’m going to dip out, it might as well be quiet and peacefully. If I could pay attention to the song, listen to that voice, I could probably ignore everything that was going on. I ended up limping to their concert the next day with shins that looked like eggplants. It was the best concert of my life.

A few weeks ago Berninger mentioned that they were 30 songs into a new album, one that, as he has warned, may be one of very few left for the band. The five journeymen are more than adept at many things, but none more so than crafting lullabies for adults that would otherwise cry themselves to sleep. They’ve provided a soundtrack for anxiety and breakups. For reconciliations and comfort, when there might not be any others to help.

This article makes the National sounds like a real bummer, and at times they are. Dad-rock and aging don’t instill vigor, and the silver linings are usually overshadowed, but that’s the real world. Everyone has their own ways to cope: some drink, some smoke, some just delude themselves. The National has filtered their woes through anything they can, desperately trying to snatch any last bliss out of dwindling ignorance before confronting inevitable reality. That’s what being an adult is all about.

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