[sic] Magazine

Editorial – My Murmuring Darlings, The National

“It’s a terrible love that I’m walking with spiders”
(Matt Berninger)

“Noooo, not the mumbling man again.”
(My wife, from the next room)

Critical response to High Violet, The National’s fifth album, has ranged between reasoned positivity and fawning deification. In my house the spectrum is somewhat wider. I love them but my wife cannot stand The National. In her mind Berninger can’t sing and all the songs sound the same. I suspect for her the two are interrelated. Hers is a malady that affects all music lovers. I call it Lead-Singeritis , some kind of mental block concerning certain frontmen or women. In this respect Matt Berninger acts as a kind of cerebral Doorman. For the lucky ones, access is allowed to the house of wonders that is The National’s music. He’ll even hold the door open for us. The unlucky ones remain forever blocked at the entrance.

“I wait for the click
I wait, but it doesn’t kick in”

Matt Burninger

The door is never unattended. The National don’t really go in for instrumentals. Berninger is always there. Maybe we should pause to consider the man himself. If you haven’t heard The National, Berninger’s voice could be positioned somewhere between Stuart Staples (Tindersticks) and Vic Reeves singing in the ‘club style’ (Shooting Stars) That’s just my little joke by the way. And yet both Staples and Berninger have always reminded me of Vic’s little turn as the club singer. (What is ‘club singing’? Let’s say it’s a kind of incoherent slur accompanied by all manner of facial contortions. Despite this it remains vaguely tuneful, at least tuneful enough to allow contestants to have a stab at guessing the song. Google it. Have a chuckle).

Is it Terrible Love by The National, Bob?

I shouldn’t tease. One persons mumbling man is another’s hero. Berninger is undoubtedly heroic in the eyes of each and every one of the many devoted National fans. He is probably the greatest nerd champion since Fox Mulder. The man makes the un-cool, cool. As a colleague once put it, you want to be him. There he is singing about social awkwardness, and you wish it were you. Explain that.

“Trying to find somewhere to stand and lean
I leaned on a wall and the wall leaned away”

Berninger is a lyrical genius.

Berninger will explain everything (“to the geeks”)

Dessner & Berninger

And The National just might be the most important band on the planet right now. How refreshing it is to say so about a group on the occasion of their firth album. Nice to see a band with some longevity. Personally I’m a little bored by the Industry cycle of great debuts that usually add up to a whole bunch of nothing. There have been too many false promise debuts. Those bands have nowhere to go but down. I can’t help wondering if you’re not better off with an innocuous first album. Look at the evidence. Radiohead and Sigur Ros both made fairly low-key first efforts and are currently amongst the biggest acts around. The first National album was a modest affair. They found their true sound on the sophomore Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. The National make slow burning music. They may just have a slow burn career.

“Everything you say has water under it”

The National formed in Cincinnati but re-located to Brooklyn. They are oft-compared to fellow New York based Interpol. I see it, but only in glimpses. A certain sheen on a certain guitar (‘All The Wine’ perhaps?) ‘Available’ has a sprinkling of New Order but The National are steeped in enough Americana not to stand too much comparison with the long raincoat brigade. In fact The National are probably the most Americana I get. They also find themselves compared to Bruce Springsteen but this is derived somewhat lazily from the twin facts that they are fans and have covered ‘Mansion On The Hill’ (See the Virginia EP)

The National

The latest journalistic peg is The Hold Steady. Do The National sound like The Hold Steady? Hmm? Maybe a little, yes. Sonically I could concede that there’s a crossover. But emotionally the two Brooklyn bands are like night and day. The Hold Steady are brash, exuberant, extrovert. They’re a bar brawl. They’d make a great wedding band. (Shotgun wedding that is.) The National make introspective, melancholic, loner music. The Hold Steady work very well as a kind of escapism. The National…well, these guys can be your life.

“You’re the lowlife of the party
Bad blood
Bad blood for everybody”

My wife described them as “Joy Division meets Supertramp” after a gig in Brussels. Again the spectrum there is fairly wide to say the least, and yet I think she has nailed down their essence better than those hacks ever did with their Interpol, The Hold Steady and The Boss.

My wife knows her music.

A recent reviewer went as far as to say, “Why aren’t they bigger than U2?” Well Mr Mainstream pressman, I suspect that they aren’t bigger than U2 because they aren’t fist pumping, flag waving, stadium rockers and they haven’t blown the establishment off the stage at Live Aid (yet). The National aren’t bigger than U2 because they’re so much better. They aren’t lowest common denominator . They’re niche. Yet admittedly there’s a groundswell for their particular sound. Which leads me to my own particular parallel, because the band I think The National are most reminiscent of is … wait for it….R.E.M.

Dark Was The Night

Mr November

Inhale, hold it……and release. Yeah R.E.M. Why? We’re back to that slow burning career thing again. It’s not that I think The National’s music is like R.E.M. (Although I’ve heard worse comparisons) Think of it this way, when R.E.M. began they were known for Bucks guitar style and Stipes fairly unclear vocals. They garnered a fair amount of critical acclaim but they didn’t sell. Over a succession of albums for IRS they blossomed into the band we all now know. Stipes voice, once off-putting, developed into a kind of signature that the entire world now knows and loves. The songwriting became less frantic, more assured and they began to reveal their political side. The National are in a similar place to R.E.M. circa Life’s Rich Pageant/Document. The band have been squarely behind the AIDS charity compilation Dark Was The Night. ‘Fake Empire’ helped soundtrack the Obama campaign together with Mr November T-shirts. Five albums in, they’re ready to be quietly huge.


The thing is, I think they’ve been ready for a little while. The new album, High Violet could have been called Boxer Part 2 and nobody would have protested. High Violet could’ve been the flip side of the greatest double album ever. The National haven’t developed their sound overly because they haven’t needed to. Okay there are some delicious sequencers now in place to augment Bryan Devendorf’s laconic drum playing. Subtle refinements, yes but they’d already found their place. They just needed to stay there and let the world slowly catch up. With R.E.M. the penny dropped around ‘The One I Love’. They hadn’t changed that much either. They just stayed themselves and let the R.E.M.ness of it all permeate into everyone’s subconscious.

“Your voice is swallowing my soul soul soul”

Slow Show?

If High Violet has a failing it is only that Matt’s lyrics don’t burn quite as brilliantly as they have done on Alligator and Boxer. The writer’s block revealed so candidly by the film A Skin A Night seems to have spilled over onto this record.

Did he just sing: “Losin’ my breath, duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh” ?

He does, on ‘Lemonworld’ and yet it still somehow works. What’s interesting is that the writing difficulties in A Skin A Night seemed to centre around ‘Slow Show’. I’ve heard demo versions and that song changed a lot before it settled into the centerpiece of Boxer. (The decision to reprise ’29 Years’ (from the debut album) proved inspirational.) I heard that the band had similar problems finishing ‘Lemonworld’. But ‘Lemonworld’…well, it is ‘Slow Show’ isn’t it? It’s the same verse melody. We forgive them because all great bands fall foul of this at one point or another. Plagiarism begins at home. It happened to Afghan Whigs. It happened to New Order and it happened to R.E.M. I mean, ‘Bad Day’ was ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It….’ Or vice versa. (It was an earlier song than you probably think.) It was the same song. On ‘Lemonworld’ we don’t care because it is so damn good. Berninger gets away with duh duh duh because we love him.

“all the very best of us, string ourselves up for the….
All the very best of us, string ourselves up for the…”

They’ll take your hearts, this band. Theirs may be a stealth invasion but still they’ll triumph. It is my understanding that Stipe himself is a fan, that he took Mills to The National, live in London and Mills was blown away. R.E.M., remember, once became bigger than U2. Was it their greatest period? I’m not sure. I liked it better just before, when they should have been the biggest band in the world but weren’t yet.

“I’m the new blue blood; I’m the great white hope”

High Violet?

So we wait now for The National’s ‘Losing My Religion’ or ‘Everybody Hurts’, the mega-breakthrough, the household name cementer. But let’s wait in the sure and certain knowledge that this place is the best place to be. Let’s make the most of The National here and now because when the moment comes, their moment, it’s all going to go mental.

~High Violet is out now on 4AD. All photos courtesy of The National official website, American Mary and may be subject to copyright.~