These songs lurk in indie rock's dark corners, yet more often than not they bring strange beauty to light. The National's lavish arrangements are best heard through headphones — until you realize that you want to share this music with everyone you know. The lyrics can be profoundly disturbing, or disturbingly profound. Same difference. Maybe.
The National is the sort of band that keeps you up at night.
And by "you," I mean me, and by "night," I mean a particular late-Wednesday-into-early-Thursday in May, when I laid awake for hours, wondering just what I'd say to a member of the best goddamn band in the country.
I didn't know how I'd begin. I didn't even know to whom I'd be speaking.
"It'll probably just come up on the caller ID as NATIONAL, THE," offered my fiancé, with all the devil-may-care humor of a man who doesn't realize he's about to be punched.
I counted backward from two hundred. I tried to remember the names of everyone in my fifth-grade class, which is what I do when I really, truly can't sleep. I listened to the low hum of the air conditioner, to the contented pashoo-pashoo of my snoring cat. None of that helped, and by the time my 10 a.m. interview rolled around, I was so tense and exhausted that I didn't so much walk as hover.
And in fact, I felt something approximating relief when the phone didn't ring at 10 a.m. Or 10:05. Or 10:20.
But, of course, this story isn't about me. It's about the National.
Everyone called Alligator a grower. That was the term — "grower" — and the word sounded menacing and weird and kind of silly, like a marshmallow in the microwave. But it's easy to see what the fans and critics meant. The 2005 album didn't have any huge, poppy hooks, and the National didn't have any marketing push. Instead, Alligator made its way into people's collections slowly, at the recommendation of a friend or an indie-rock DJ. But once the record slipped into rotation, there was no taking it out. Alligator is an incredibly dense, deeply affecting album, with lead singer Matt Berninger careening from ecstatic, yelping highs (the barnburners "Abel" and "Lit Up") to heartbreaking/-broken, whispery lows ("Daughters of the Soho Riots," "Baby, We'll Be Fine"). Guitarists Scott Devendorf and Bryce Dessner provide soaring beauty and chugging squall in equal measure. Aaron Dessner lays down solid bass lines, and Bryan Devendorf — perhaps the best indie-rock drummer out there — ties everything together with his amazing stickwork. The result is the perfect rock album, even if it took people a little while to realize it. And once that realization hit, the National had a legion of new fans.
The National's publicist patches me through to Matt Berninger at a quarter till eleven. My fears of sounding like a journalistic equivalent of Ralph Wiggum prove unfounded, thank God (though that probably owes more to Berninger's easygoing demeanor than to my ability to pull it together).
The guys in the National will have logged plenty of miles by the time they reach the Duck Room this week. Touring in support of the just-released LP Boxer, the band first went to Europe (with stops in London, Paris and Munich), and then headed back to the States for five shows at New York City's Bowery Ballroom.
"There are good things about playing in New York," Berninger says. "I can go home and sleep in my own bed. But sometimes it's more stressful, because there's more of a socializing thing. After you do a show, you kind of want to crawl under a rock, [but] all your best friends are there."
The disconnect between public life and private thought, between the raucous party and the solitary room, is an ever-present motif in the National's songs. But Berninger doesn't wear his angst like some strange badge of honor. His lyrics are at once ambiguous and crystalline, and they capture the reality of being twentysomething in America without succumbing to melancholy posing. He writes songs of alienation and longing — longing for a lost lover, or for an old friend, or for a home that remains just out of reach. The members of the National grew up in Ohio, but they've fully embraced (and have been fully embraced by) their new home base of New York City. But Berninger allows that, sometimes, there's still that feeling of being out of place.
"I love, absolutely love New York," he says. "But you never quite feel 100 percent at ease. And so I always feel a little bit like a stranger in paradise, and that comes into the songs."
The National's meditations on their adopted hometown are far more ambiguous than the place-songs of, say, Bruce Springsteen. The sentiments, however, are just as powerful. Boxer is a quieter album than Alligator, but it elaborates on that record's obsession with constructing a meaningful, individual existence in the middle of an enormous city. The National doesn't pretend to have answers, but sometimes the questions are more than enough. And Boxer has questions, insights and beauty in spades.
"The reaction to Boxer has been incredibly good so far," Berninger says. "At first people were expecting an album full of screaming songs, like [Alligator's] 'Abel' or 'Mr. November.' It's a process. You start to hear what we're doing, and it's a very different thing." He pauses, then laughs. "But the explosive [songs] are fun as hell."
Too true. For all of the sadness and longing and urban alienation, for all the lost love and creeping madness, the National is still fun as hell. Catharsis can be joyous, and punch-drunk shout-alongs are good for the soul.
One thing is certain: Summer is here.