The National were formed in 1999 in Ohio. Fronted by Matt Berninger’s baritone vocals, the band is made up of Aaron Dessner (guitar and keyboards), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Bryan Devendorf (drums) and Scott Devendorf (bass).
On a course for success, The National churned out album after album over the next couple of years including 2001’s self-titled album, (The National), 2003’s Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, and Cherry Tree EP in 2004. In 2004, they signed with Beggers Banquet and released Alligator in 2005, followed by Boxer in 2007. Both of these albums garnered much critical success; The National became one to watch with their unique brand of monotone yet emotive indie-rock.
While 2007’s Boxer was considered their breakout album, Alligator remains my favorite. Overall, there is a quiet calm to Alligator. Some songs express uncertainty and wariness while other songs express confidence and tenacity. The National dives in head first into the common experiences of their peers and themselves and expresses concerns in a smart way. The combination of melodies and harmonies impart level-headedness to even the most chaotic moments.
The album starts with “Secret Meeting,” an upbeat song about introspection. There is an element of detached sensuality in “Karen,” a piano-drive ballad with references to things that may make one blush.
“Looking for Astronauts” has one of my favorite lines: “You know you have a permanent piece of my medium size American heart.” To me, this lyric addresses the limits that we place on those around us: never letting anyone all the way in but always recognizing their everlasting importance in the lives we lead. This song leads right into “Daughters of the Soho Riots,” an emotive and slow tune about vulnerability. It almost sounds as if Matt is trying to hold back tears over Aaron’s piano melody.
Berninger’s gets apologetic in “Baby We’ll Be Fine.” Each verse is a needy declaration. He sings,“Say something perfect/ something I can steal/ say ‘Look at me, baby we’ll be fine.” Sometimes an encouraging look from a loved one can fix everything.
“All the Wine” starts with a slow string picking melody. Then the drums come in, followed by Matt’s vocals. The lyrics express power with snark. Matt sounds sort of entitled as he sings, “I’m so sorry but the motorcade will have to go around me this time/ ‘Cause God is on my side and I’m the child bride.” It is a song about being invincible and carefree.
The invincibility of “All The Wine” transitions into a frenzied mind in “Abel.” “Abel” opens with some strong yelling of “My mind’s not right.” The song seems like an attempt to control a destructive friend while maintaining one’s own sanity. Everything calms down on “The Geese of Beverly Road.”
The album ends with one of the best all time closers ever: “Mr. November.” This all-out scream-fest is complete with one of the best “scream it back to me” choruses of all time (“I won’t fuck us over/ I’m Mr. November“). With fists in the air, the world makes sense. The National still uses it as a closer for many of their shows. (The National even produced Mr. November merchandise for Barack Obama during the 2008 election.)
Since the release of Alligator, The National achieved some great things. In 2010, they released High Violet, an album with some of their best material like “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Conversation 16.” Their 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me was nominated for a Grammy. They’ve headlined multiple festivals and sold out quite a few large venues. The band played an active role in political causes like the recent presidential elections and raised awareness for AIDS as part of Dark is the Night compilation.
It always to come back to 2005’s Alligator. Matt’s vocals are even-keeled and he speaks clearly into the microphone. Bryan Devendorf’s drums and Aaron Dessner’s piano round out The National’s signature sound. Not all the songs are perfect; “Val Jester” and “Friend of Mine” miss the mark. But, like to the errors of a loved one, this is easy to forgive. Subsequent albums tried very hard but, even 10 years later, Alligator just nails it.