04. Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
Runtime: 55:06 (13 Tracks)
“I Must Be Me, I’m in My Head”: “I have only two emotions/ Careful fear and dead devotion” (“Don’t Swallow the Cap”)
“Sorrow Waited, Sorrow Won”: Trouble Will Find Me is arguably the most somber record from The National, which is quite the feat considering this is a band whose albums revolve around sorrow. With that said, each track on the band’s sixth LP is its own descent into despair and despondency, but opener “I Should Live in Salt” sets the tone for the remainder of the album. The song centers on Matt Berninger’s complicated relationship with Tom Berninger, his younger brother. Tom’s documentary about the band, Mistaken for Strangers, has a scene that features The National working on this song, following the dysfunction and frustration that permeates throughout the film. “Don’t make me read your mind/ You should know me better than that,” Berninger laments. Brotherhood can be difficult, but “I Should Live in Salt” serves as both an apology and a declaration of love.
“We’ll Run Like We’re Awesome”: The best song from Trouble Will Find Me comes as the record nears its end, when the final notes of “Humiliation” ring out and fade away. “Pink Rabbits” starts with a memorable piano hook and swung drums before Berninger enters the mix with “I couldn’t find quiet/ I went out in the rain.” Throughout the band’s discography, stormy weather constantly surfaces as a metaphor for Berninger’s dejection. Roughly halfway through, he returns with some of the most indelible lyrics of his career: “You didn’t see me, I was falling apart/ I was a television version of a person with a broken heart.” He doesn’t have the luxury of doing menial tasks to ease the pain. On television, he’s never allowed this reprieve, forced to face his sadness directly with no distractions.
“So Surprised You Want to Dance with Me Now”: The National’s sixth record has some of the best live material in the band’s history, and with ballads like “Hard to Find” and “Slipped”, Trouble Will Find Me’s songs often make for a welcome break in between the band’s more well-known tracks. But the third single, “Graceless”, showcases the quintet with an unexpected energy and swiftness. In the outro, Berninger lets loose in the live version with almost feral screams, and Bryan Devendorf’s drums add a momentum unusual for the typically quiet, mid-tempo indie rockers.
“I’ll Explain Everything to the Geeks”: 2013 saw The National at their bleakest, and it also saw them release some of their best work with Trouble Will Find Me. Death and sadness are central themes here, and they’re also a springboard for the Dessner brothers’ magnificent compositions and Berninger’s heartfelt lyrics. Although his lyrics are often difficult to decipher and relish in secrecy, Trouble Will Find Me finds him at his most direct.
03. High Violet (2010)
Runtime: 47:40 (11 Tracks)
“I Must Be Me, I’m in My Head”: “You said it was night inside my heart, it was/ You said it should tear a kid apart, it does” (“Anyone’s Ghost”)
“Sorrow Waited, Sorrow Won”: A lot of words come to mind when I’m trying to describe the sound of High Violet — “nervous,” “opulent,” “jittery,” “claustrophobic” — but “sad” isn’t one of them. “Lemonworld”, on the other hand, is a song drenched in sadness. Despite the opening lyric, Berninger’s narrator doesn’t sound happy to be at whatever party he’s at; in fact, he doesn’t sound like he could be happy anywhere. Through guitars that rumble like storm clouds, Berninger quakes under the weight of his guilt and privilege — he’s as far away from the ongoing war as he is from his comfortable childhood — as he imagines the titular dreamland. A lemonworld sounds like heaven, but “Lemonworld” sounds like hell.
“We’ll Run Like We’re Awesome”: It’s quite possible that “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is the single greatest song The National have produced thus far. It’s certainly the quintessential National song, to the point where it almost feels like a checklist of everything a National song should be. Driving, thwacking drumbeat from Bryan Devendorf? Check. Lyrics that touch on disconnection, financial woes, and intoxication? Check. Cathartic swells of strings and fanfare? Check. Turn of phrase that’s so absurd it just might be profound? Yup: “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees.” Hell, even the music video features Berninger moping in a bar. Like all highs, it doesn’t last, but for four and a half minutes, Berninger’s blood buzz sounds glorious.
“So Surprised You Want to Dance With Me Now”: We could be cute and say “Sorrow” — which The National infamously played over 100 times as part of an art installation by Ragnar Kjartansson — but we won’t. (They later sold a box set of the performances, fittingly titled A Lot of Sorrow, and I don’t know what’s more incredulous — that the 1,500-edition set sold out or that someone put the whole damn thing, all six hours of it, on YouTube.) Instead, this one goes to “Terrible Love”. The National often conclude shows with High Violet’s opener, and it’s not hard to hear why: its coda is perhaps the warmest and loudest moment on the album, and it sounds even warmer and louder from the stage. No sooner than Berninger screams, “It takes an ocean not to break!” at the climax do the Dessner brothers give him one, washing out the song in spectacular fashion with wave after wave of guitar distortion.
“I’ll Explain Everything to the Geeks”: Critics saddled High Violet’s two predecessors (and superiors — keep reading) with the term “grower,” but The National’s fifth album might be their easiest to love. (At the time, some reviewers went so far as to call it their best.) It’s their fullest- and grandest-sounding album, to the point where it’s practically impossible to imagine these songs without the horn and string sections. It’s also possibly their darkest, thanks to Berninger’s violent and surreal lyrics; at one point, he burns down a blackberry field “just to see what it kills” (“Little Faith”), then later threatens to eat his wife’s brains (“Conversation 16”). None of this kept High Violet from becoming the band’s most-acclaimed and best-selling album yet (it debuted at No. 3 on the US Billboard 200) and deservedly so.
02. Alligator (2005)
Runtime: 48:00 (13 tracks)
“I Must Be Me, I’m in My Head”: “Without warm water in my head/ All I see is black and white and red/ I feel mechanical and thin / Hear me play my violin again” (“Karen”)
“Sorrow Waited, Sorrow Won”: Alligator mirrors The National’s self-titled debut in the sense that Berninger mourns a happy life he’s traded for workplace success. This happens about halfway through the record on “Baby, We’ll Be Fine”. He opens with lyrics such as “All night I lay on my pillow and pray/ For my boss to stop me in the hallway/ Lay my head on his shoulder and say/ ‘Son, I’ve been hearing good things.’” Berninger sings about waking up each morning and facing himself in the mirror, trying to convince himself that he enjoys his life. His job has even obstructed his ability to have a healthy marriage (“You spill Jack and Coke in my collar/ I melt like a witch and scream”).
“We’ll Run Like We’re Awesome”: The National’s third LP undoubtedly contains some of the band’s best songwriting in their discography, and “Daughters of the Soho Riots” is a microcosm of that. It’s one of the quieter moments on Alligator, with piano and an acoustic guitar acting as a canvas for Berninger to sing about blending into a large crowd and being interminably lost. Bryan Devendorf’s percussion is muted and hushed, giving way for Berninger’s lyrics and Bryce Dessner’s gentle guitar melody.
“So Surprised You Want to Dance with Me Now”: Similar to The National’s other older material, like their self-titled debut and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, the band rarely plays any tracks live from Alligator. But the closing track, “Mr. November,” is consistently a part of their setlist and typically finds its way toward the end of the show. It’s one of the most vibrant and lively tracks The National have ever released, and it showcases this in the chorus when Berninger howls, “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November!” and Bryan Devendorf plays less of a groove and more of a looped drum fill. Aside from making for the best live song from Alligator, it’s a stellar way to close the record in general.
“I’ll Explain Everything to the Geeks”: Following two albums that were more searches for a distinguished sound than anything authoritative, Alligator breaks that trend by affirming who The National are and what they are known for. Berninger’s lyrics became more sharp and memorable, and Aaron Dessner’s instrumentation found a focus and an unequivocal splendor. This is the point in the Ohio band’s career where they announced themselves with unapologetic confidence, and although their music leans toward the shy and reticent, Alligator confirmed The National as an indie rock band worth anyone’s time.
01. Boxer (2007)
Runtime: 43:07 (12 tracks)
“I Must Be Me, I’m in My Head”: “Turn out the light, say goodnight/ No thinking for a little while/ Let’s not try to figure out everything at once” (“Fake Empire”)
“Sorrow Waited, Sorrow Won”: Adulthood is a long, slow-motion process of losing people. Whether it be due to life’s uncertainties or death’s certainty, both family and friends will walk out of doors they won’t walk back through — sometimes swiftly and unexpectedly, sometimes gradually and knowingly but no less inevitably. “Green Gloves” is about trying to fight this process by remembering a loved one after they’re gone. There’s a sense of longing to the chorus (“Get inside their clothes with my green gloves/ Watch their videos in their chairs”), but the obsessive tension that fueled “Brainy” two songs earlier is absent; instead, “Green Gloves” glows with empathy. Even the song’s title evokes a surgeon, delicately trying to understand the innermost secrets of a body, hoping that it may be put it back together and made whole again.
“We’ll Run Like We’re Awesome”: Boxer’s opening one-two punch features two of the most beloved songs in The National canon, and the following four are every bit as strong. Closing out that six-song streak is “Slow Show”, Boxer’s beating heart. It starts in a familiar place for Berninger — drunk at a party he’d very much like to leave — and builds gorgeously from there, with woodwinds, strings, and even an accordion rising and falling like the tide. It’s at 2:31 that the song unfolds into its devastating outro, with Berninger resurrecting a chorus from the band’s debut: “You know I dreamed about you/ For 29 years before I saw you.” When we first heard these words on “29 Years”, they came off as a drunken plea. Here, they sound like a long-lost love letter — a promise rediscovered and reaffirmed.
“So Surprised You Want to Dance With Me Now”: “Fake Empire” is The National’s signature song, so it’s no surprise that the audience loses its collective mind every time that familiar piano polyrhythm rings out from the stage. The band has louder, sadder, better songs, but “Fake Empire” truly captures the live National experience. It’s in the way the crowd sings along to the refrain; it’s in the way the band members still visibly get a kick out of playing this song, despite the fact that it’s been on the setlist for virtually every one of their shows for the last 12 years. And to be honest, it’ll probably stay there until the band calls it quits.
“I’ll Explain Everything to the Geeks”: Boxer is the definitive National album. It’s the one where both Berninger’s voice and his lyrics got noticeably deeper. It’s the one where Bryan Devendorf leveled up and became one of the tightest and most propulsive drummers in indie rock. It’s the one where the Dessner brothers really figured out how to work with an orchestra, which has been an essential part of the band’s sound ever since. All of this to say: Boxer is where The National became the band they are today. A year after Boxer, the band was opening for R.E.M.’s final tour and had given Barack Obama permission to feature “Fake Empire” in a campaign video. A band that crawled out of the underground to define an era and a young leader with a vision of a bright and hopeful future; a little over decade later, it’s getting harder and harder to find those, if they even exist anymore. But The National is still here, watching over us as we try to make our way through the unmagnificent lives of adults.