I am such a sucker for well-crafted melancholy pop. I mean, I'm a sucker for lots of music, the only things that bounce right off me are probably contemporary country and dancehall, and those are not completely excluded regions for me. But my formative years of Depeche Mode and the Smiths and the whole artier end of the New Romantics has left me with a sad tooth that is never fully satisfied. Fortunately, I have managed to hang around long enough on the cultural tilt-a-whirl that it should spin back toward the lush music of bookish bummers that makes my heart hum.
The National, a name with which I was unfamiliar until the buzz of it hit my ear, are among many like the Zincs and Tindersticks who employ their chimey guitar work and somber baritone croons to the service of expressing our collective ennui. Alligator begins its psychic ripple with the sunset-through-the-trees introspection of "Secret Meeting." Though I'm loathe to describe it as such, this falls into the short-lived taxonomy of Should-be-on-the-O.C.- soundtrack music, but who am I to fight city hall. And its world's better than Rooney. "Karen's" sustain-pedal-to-the-floor piano spine gives it that rainy quality that makes the best Radiohead songs work as well as they do.
My favorite number on this the even keeled release is the soaring "Baby We'll Be Fine" where it makes mention of the anxieties that affect us all
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
I wake up without warning and go flying around the house
In my sauvignon fierce, freaking out
Take a forty-five minute shower and kiss the mirror
And say, look at me
Baby, we'll be fine
All we gotta do is be brave and be kind
I put on an argyle sweater and put on a smile
I don't know how to do this
I'm so sorry for everything
Matt Berninger's sense of pedestrian anguish is what lifts this high above the usual my-life-as-a-French-film moments that plague this particular sub genre. The slow motion string-laden "Val Jester" finds Alligator's most resplendent moments, giving Berninger's deep talking song a thick fog in which to wander. Another brilliant lyrical moment is the voicing of libationary bravado on "All The Wine"
I'm put together beautifully
Big wet bottle in my fist, big wet rose in my teeth
I'm perfect piece of ass
Like every Californian
So tall I take over the street, with highbeams shining on my back
A wingspan unbelievable
I'm a festival, I'm a parade
The pace picks up for a moment on the excellent single "Abel" with its Joy Division martial-surf cadence, only to come down to rest with the chamber music entry point of "The Geese of Beverly Road." and the lovely sing-song lilt of "City Middle" evoking the Karen mentioned earlier on the record. It goes out on another Ian Curtis high note (and he had high notes. JD was quite not as dour as they are marketed to be) on the rocketing "Mr. November." repeatedly promising "I'm Mr. November? I won't fuck us over." I don't mean to make a statement that The National are aping indie-rock's original favorite suicide, but there are a lot of commonalities, namely the urgency in the expression of confusion and loss and regret. (Also mentioning Joy Division is like that first handful of popcorn from the bowl, you can't stop until its exhausted.) The National has a fresh and welcoming and personal take on the melancholy pop song that may make that rainy day a little wetter for you, but won't drown you in its own misery.
Get you own taste at the Beggars Banquet site, who are streaming it for a limited time.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com