"Another un-innocent, elegant fall into the un-magnificent lives of adults"

Years active: Genres: Related artists:
1999 -> Indie Rock, Alternative Rock Big Red Machine (link TBC)

Line-up: Matt Berninger (vocals), Aaron Dessner (guitars, keyboards, a lot of other things), Bryce Dessner (guitars and keyboards, ca. 2002 onwards), Bryan Devendorf (drums and related), Scott Devendorf (bass, guitar).

This is going to sound a little stupid but it wasn't until I started revisiting The National's discography piece by piece in order that I realised just how much they mean to me as a band. They've played a big part in my life, enough for it to always be a clear case that I'd semi-arbitrarily rank them in the highest tier I've established on this website, but the depth of that appreciation took me a little by surprise as I waded through the back catalogue again. Spoilers but there's three perfect ratings on this page, more than any other artist - that's wild. I would still consider the other two artists sharing this place in the pedestal to be more integral to my development as a music lover, but The National wrapped themselves deeply into my live from the moment they entered it and to such a personal degree that, well, here we are.

There are many reasons why I love The National but the biggest of them all is that sheer emotional grip that they wield so strongly. The emphasis on resonant feeling is right down in their core: as much as the internet (and the band themselves) likes to have a laugh at their reputation of being music for depressed middle-aged men, the kernel of truth in that quip is that there is a kind of mature emotional sharpness to The National's music that makes them hit hard to the receptive heart. Matt Berninger's lyrics are melancholy and introspective - and often also dryly funny and intriguingly absurdist - but not in a hyper-literal fashion where he would lay out his (and your life) in great detail one verse after another. Rather he masters the art of precise detail and observing anecdote, where even his more hyper-specific scenarios touch upon something universal that many - and yes, especially us white adult cis men - find relatable in an emotional level. Berninger's low mumble makes those words come out comforting and trustworthy, like a friend from the very first listen acknowledging your presence. Why The National has become such a meaningful part of my music listening is that out of anything else on this page, nearly all of their albums carry a very particular and poignant emotional memory related to a specific part of my life. A lot of albums have done that, from many artists I've listened to for decades - The National's consistency in this part is frighteningly frequent. They are, generally, incredibly consistent - after a patient start, their career has basically been a series of highs that keep building on top of one another and always finding something new and thrilling from what is a very identifiable core sound.

It wouldn't really be a blurb about The National without mentioning just how immense they are as musical talents. They are masterful instrumentalists and imaginative arrangers, and that's another exciting thing to witness "in real time" if you ever want to go through their albums from the beginning to the present day. What started out as a bedroom project for a handful of friends (made out of two sets of brothers and Berninger) with years of failed bands behind them, where humble musicianship backed a group of people who weren't entirely sure what they wanted to be, eventually piece by piece transformed - blossomed - into an intricate set of masters all bringing their unique talent into the compositions. The Dessner brothers were originally famous for their interlocking guitar melodies that sounded almost orchestrated as they covered each other's open spaces - but their multi-instrumentalist nature has eventually become the driving force of the band's sonic transformation over the years, turning wild twists and challenging changes into reality both in studio and on stage. Bryan Devendorf is arguably the greatest drummer going in the world of 2000s indie, his fascinating patterns sounding like a series of fills that took over the ship and began to drive it to a new destination: there's no one else really like him and he's certainly my favourite drummer of all time. Scott Devendorf is the stable pillar holding it all together - his basslines are (quite honestly) skeletal and straightforward which seems like a flaw if you compare it to the flashiness of everyone else, but it's often his humble contributions that keep the songs tied to the ground. In a group full of flashy showmen he's the one quietly swaying on the hidden side of the stage, but I didn't really realise it until I started playing some of the band's songs on bass just how important that stability is to the music.

Patience in general, in a way, is the key with this band. I refer to it in the later reviews as well but The National used to have the reputation of being a grower band - an act you'd listen to because everyone raves about them but which you don't really get on the first listen, and yet what you heard keeps haunting your mind and slowly you begin to listen to them more and more, and soon these easily dismissable songs become lifelines and grand moments that make you want to rave about the band to other people. That's certainly still true to some extent, with the differences between various albums likely coming across miniscule to someone who's only heard of the band in passing and vastly radical to established fans. The National can make grand gestures - they've managed to fit into the arenas that they ended up playing - but so much of their music is about subtlety, in the finer details of the arrangements that come through best with headphones or the succinct but poignant ways the smallest changes can make the biggest waves. Berninger on record isn't a frontman full of showmanship and bravado, but his gentle mutters back an awful lot of punch the moment what he says begins to click. I know this all sounds a little pretentious but they are a band that warrants paying attention, and fortunately the melodies and hooks that they insert into their songs are so captivating that you find yourself dipping more and more into each album.

To summarise, The National mean a lot to me as a band - their music has been with me during great life changes and periods of heavy contemplation, and it's always felt like it's especially their music that has been a strong pillar to lean against, and to build on, during those times. It's to the degree that I'm finding it harder to really articulate their significance when compared to e.g. The Manics or R.E.M., their companions in the A-rank - both of those bands have a wild history full of twists and turns and that's applied to my relationship with them too. The National, on the other hand, have been a loyal companion who've felt like they've always been there, speaking to me indirectly through the speakers. So we are, absolutely, going to have a ton of rambling bias on this page and a lot of high ratings. They may not have revolutionised the way I listen to music like other bands have, but they've been a true companion walking through my journey by my side, the Sam cheering on my Frodo. And that's why they matter so much.

Releases I own but not reviewed here: "Bloodbuzz Ohio" promo CDS (with "Sin-Eaters" as the b-side), Musikexpress Live EP (2017 EP of five live songs releases as a German magazine promo), Juicy Sonic Magic (digital; official bootleg-qualty live recording), Songs Without Words (digital; a set of instrumental demos released for free)

Main chronology:

Other releases:

Side projects:


Matt Berninger


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2001 6 "Beautiful Head", "American Mary", "Son"

1) Beautiful Head; 2) Cold Girl Fever; 3) The Perfect Song; 4) American Mary; 5) Son; 6) Pay for Me; 7) Bitters & Absolut; 8) John's Star; 9) Watching You Well; 10) Theory of the Crows; 11) 29 Years; 12) Anna Freud

Casually played, americana-tinged and without any lofty ambitions or instrumental finesse. It's a modest start.

Forget Alligator or Boxer, forget anything you know and/or love about The National before you take this for a spin. Forget the intricate textures, the instrumental finesse, the layered arrangements and the emotional intensity that have become the band's trademarks over the years through their most famous work. You can even forget about Matt Berninger’s half-awake, half-drunk insights into human nature. All of that is still waiting in the not-too-distant future. The National's self-titled debut came to be when they had barely had the chance to even think about what they want from the group, after the members' previous bands had all come to an end and they formed a new act together out of the ashes, started to immediately write songs and then quickly recorded them before they had even played a single show together.

The National is a humble album which lacks the dynamics, detail and the songcraft that would eventually form the band's musical core. You only get the briefest hint of Bryan Devendorff's distinct drumming style and the Dessner brothers' interlocking guitar parts are nowhere to be found for the simple reason that Bryce wasn't even a member of the band yet (though he makes some guest appearances) - and even Aaron is officially on bass duty while Scott Devendorff's noted down as the lead guitarist at this stage. Berninger's crooning is about the only recognisable thing which ties this onto the later albums, and he's still searching for his singing style as well and stumbling through lyrical directions. The version of The National presented on this album is at an embryo stage and waiting to develop further: they're the band at the back of the local bar, still figuring out their own sound and purpose while cranking out one mid-tempo rock song after another.

For the time being they seem to be considering being the next Wilco, with a distinct strain of alt-country running throughout the album. The gap between this and the rest of their career is fascinating to say the least and this is interesting on that alone, but also... it's obviously underwhelming, as well. The National hasn't gained the kind of infamy that some other notably misleading debut albums carry around - this has more or less been forgotten by everyone but the hardcore fans and the band themselves, and both of those parties only ever bring it up if the context demands it. It's understandable why that has happened, but the potential for greatness is already present and what brings The National down a notch is primarily down to the fact that very few of the songs sound completely finished, like they're one more revisit away from the quintessential version. Maybe a further revision would have also directed the band away from the stronger americana flair, which as a concept I'm perfectly down with but which isn't right either for The National nor these songs - it's distracting and at times even superfluous, and case in point the country twang guitars of "Pay for Me" are so out of place and in your face that they derail the entire song.

On the positive side what is here is nonetheless a decent bunch of songs, and the first half of the album is genuinely good even if you can spot the room for improvement. The upbeat "Beautiful Head" is probably the album's best song, and certainly its best chorus, and whilst "The Perfect Song" isn't an accurate moniker, it is a slightly audible nod towards Alligator - both songs feature a level of energy that later gets toned down almost completely and give the album a brisk beginning. The surrounding tracks compliment them well while showcasing a little bit of variety - "Cold Girl Fever" is memorable thanks its fruity little keyboard sounds and solidly suave hooks, there's the clearly intended torchsong "American Mary" which if released some years later would break hearts far stronger than it does now, and "Son" is the album's clear glimpse forward. "Son" is the retrospectively the album's key track because it all the elements of a classic National song all in one place and put together, from the slow-burn dynamics to the more intricate drum pattern and the textural guitar work. Though the pieces haven't fully clicked into place yet, it's the strongest indication this album does to demonstrate that this group of nobody upstarts have potential. It's the only song from this album that has continued to be acknowledged by band in their livesets on a semi-regular basis, if that gives any indication to how well it ultimately links to the later works.

On the second half The National wade into moodier waters more befitting of their usual selves, but on this album it means a descent into a more monotone set of mid-tempo moodiness. While it's got its highlights (the stylishly reserved "Theory of the Crows", the casual swagger of "Anna Freud" which ends the album on an off-kilter groove), it's where The National reveals why we've all filed the album in the archives. Where there's shakiness in the band's current composition it comes to surface here, with the uncertainties and underdevelopment coming across clearly in this run of songs that all effectively repeat the same ideas over and over again with minute changes. By far the most interesting thing on the second half is "29 Years", a strange textural experiment - two different instruments ran through different sound filters in different time signatures - that's little more than an interlude but which is so far removed from the rest of the album's sound world that it's inevitable it sticks around, even though it's more of a neat idea than a good song per se. Parts of it would also eventually get recycled for "Slow Show" on Boxer, but given it's highly unlikely anyone these days is going to hear this album before Boxer, those segments are a strangely familiar moment out of time - and they inadvertently secure the song's place in history.

The truth is, even with its positive points this album is nonetheless completely inessential to anyone but the biggest fans and even many of them will find it completely unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But still, it's not worth dismissing altogether. While it's primarily characterised by potential and it only hints at greater glories, the start is there: Berninger's charisma is already in place to some extent even if he hasn't found his lyrical voice yet, the overall craftsmanship displayed is competent enough that there's very few true criticisms to point out about it, and the first half of the record is enjoyable completely in its own right and shows that the band can write a good hook. The biggest flaw it has is that The National still don't know who The National should be and the undoubtable talent they haven't isn't best represented through the sound or songs they're trying out here. It's a modest start for a band who clearly were still in the draft phase, but who could obviously achieve greatness one day in the future.

Physically: Jewel case with a barebones "booklet" only containing the credits, no photos or lyrics.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2003 7 "Cardinal Song", "Available", "Lucky You"

1) Cardinal Song; 2) Slipping Husband; 3) 90-Mile Water Wall; 4) It Never Happened; 5) Murder Me Rachael; 6) Thirsty; 7) Available; 8) Sugar Wife; 9) Trophy Wife; 10) Fashion Coat; 11) Patterns of Fairytales; 12) Lucky You

Throw it on the wall and see what sticks - The National learning to be The National

The National have dubbed Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers as their "what the hell" album, which is a little blunt but it drives in the point. After releasing the self-titled debut and playing some gigs off the back of it, the band agreed they had a good thing going on but that they needed to take their sound somewhere else if they actually wanted to succeed as a band. Where exactly that was, was the open question. So, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers became their wall to throw any ideas onto to check whether it would stick. Sad Songs' palette is most diverse out of all The National albums, full of songs that now cause the band to wonder what exactly were they thinking when recording them. There's a handful of songs which are obvious linear progression from the debut's material, but they're the exception rather than the rule. Elsewhere you have chaotic rock cuts where Matt Berninger screams his guts out, perky pop hooks, multiple songs characterised by drum machines and one of them ("Sugar Wife") veers close to indietronica and tentative toe-dips into the moody textural waters. Those are only the most obvious sidesteps, too: the entire album is filled with a multitude of styles and loads of subtler experimentation in structure choices, arrangements and other musical decisions where the end goal hasn't perhaps been as important as the process it's taken to get there has been.

That is to say, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers continues the trend of The National's first steps being a little wobbly. For the most parts this isn't essential National nor is it a lost treasure for the fans either, but it is a fascinating listen for those who do want to map out the band's history because throughout its strange journey a clear pattern starts to emerge across the twelve songs. The National are learning to be The National, with the Dessners' intricate guitar work (Bryce having now officially joined the band), Devendorff's signature drumming style and Berninger's frontman antics starting to take form and come together in a shape that's starting to resemble something familiar. The album's soundscape is in a constant flux but the band are finding their strengths within that whirlpool and the cohesive DNA starting to shape undearneath becomes the string that connects the album's mixed bag of tricks together. From there, the band start taking confident steps forward. "Thirsty" lays down the atmosphere with its lingering guitarlines and gently intensifies its brooding beauty until Berninger gets drowned by the echoing backing vocals and overarching strings, and it has that slow-burn energy which the band would eventually take to their heart. Both "It Never Happened" and "Cardinal Song" change tact abruptly as if to signal a course correction: the former could have come straight from The National until it transforms into an deeply layered instrumental vortex halfway through and introduces an entirely different band as it does so, while the latter song drowsily (and beautifully) opens the album with no seeming end point in its aching slowcore slumber until it wakes up in its last minutes and gets coated in yet more strings. In both occasions perfectly good songs are suddenly uplifted with a twist that's not only a million miles away from the last album, but which are still exciting. The best they save to the very end: The National land their first truly classic song with the sarcastic torchlight ballad "Lucky You", dripping with barely disguised frustration as it raises a glass to a bitter break-up. If they hadn't effectively bettered its formula in the future this would likely now be a real signature song for them, but it's nonetheless agelessly brilliant and its placement at the very end (coincidentally) acts like a bridge to the future.

That said, there is something quite fun in the incoherent variety of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. The album goes from place to place without warning but the spray-and-pray approach to trying different sounds does bring up good results more often than it misses, and even when the writing lacks a little the general idea still manages to deliver. The emergence of the loud rock 'n' roll National is the most satisfying side tract of the whole lot: the jangly "Slipping Husband" kicks the album into gear properly after the long gentle intro of "Cardinal Song" and Berninger bursting into screams towards the end is genuinely surprising and powerful; "Available" takes it even further and reimagines the band as a crunchy, stadium-ready post-punk act, and through the combination of the novelty, the energy and the aggressive hooks it comfortably becomes the album's wildest stand-out. When the album reaches its second half it begins to truly unravel into a mix of inconsistent ideas, but the smooth and bright indie pop of "Trophy Wife" and "Fashion Coat" as well as the bubbly keyboard- and filter-drenched dreaminess of "Patterns of Fairytales" are as intriguing as they are engaging, even if they're bit of one trick ponies - these songs especially act as a window to a wholly different strain of The National that wouldn't really appear again after this record.

The nature of a scattershop approach like this obviously comes with the caveat that not everything stacks up as cosily, and there are some clear lesser cuts: "Sugar Wife" may be curiously different with its pseudo-synth pop twist but it's also rather aimless, "Murder Me Rachael" is another shouty and guitar-heavy showstopper but bites dust in comparison to the other two, and "90-Mile Water Wall" sounds too much like a leftover from the previous album to make much of a presence here anymore. None of those bring the flow to a halt either though, and while they contribute to the certain kind of unevenness that ultimately drops the points for this album, you can still hear that the band are trying to bring in as much effort to them as they are with anything else. While most bands would have kept this kind of experimentation to the confinement of practice space rather than release it for public ears to hear, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers proves to be a good listen that's aged well thanks to the band's determination in their strive forward - in less abstract terms, it basically results in each song bringing something to the mix that makes it memorable and frequently you get something genuinely good out of it. It's still an album best approached with the notion in mind that it's a snapshot of a band trying to figure themselves out, but the good news is that the hard work spent here did turn out to point out the right door forward.

Physically: Jewel case with a single-fold booklet with credits and not much else. However The National start their habit of highlighting a particular lyric or phrase in the liner notes here, with "Build a fire for Val Jester" sprawled across the second side of the booklet. Which are, of course, the opening lyrics to "Val Jester" from Alligator. Foreshadowing...


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2004 8 "All the Wine", "All Dolled-Up in Straps", "About Today"

1) Wasp Nest; 2) All the Wine; 3) All Dolled-Up in Straps; 4) Cherry Tree; 5) About Today; 6) Murder Me Rachael (Live); 7) Reasonable Man (I Don't Mind)

A confident debut, two albums late.

The Cherry Tree EP is canonically the moment where The National, as we know them, really took off. The experimenting nature of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers had left the band with a hunch of what they were good at and which direction they wanted to pursue, which then lead to this stylistically cohesive and consistent EP release as a way of putting that plan into test without committing to a full-length album. The band's newly-found focus and confidence is partly also thanks to a few key collaborators. One of them is Peter Katis who had co-produced parts of the last album and who had gelled with the band so well that they wanted to expand their working relationship, and while the EP isn't fully produced by him he acts as its lead and would subsequently go on to produce the next couple of albums in full. The other name is fellow musician and multi-instrumentalist Padma Newsome, who had collaborated with Bryce Dessner on their Clogs project and subsequently had lent his support as an additional stage hand for The National's live appearances: his string arrangements are not only all over this EP but he'd practically become the unofficial sixth member of The National for the rest of the decade from hereon in. Thanks to their crucial roles in The National's mid-to-late 2000s work both men would become incredibly familiar to any fan of the band's music soon enough, and their increased roles on Cherry Tree are what really seals this down as the first true debut of The National in a form that most people would recognise.

The first four songs are the band's soft reset and an instant refocus. "Wasp Nest" and "All Dolled-Up in Straps" are both gentle and deeply bittersweet, taking the band's previously exhibited sad boy americana and shaking off the excess twang from it, adding a dash of New York cool in its place and growing the instrumentation more elaborate ("Wasp Nest" probably has the best use of jingle bells outside Christmas music that I've heard); The National instantly sound much more comfortable in their own skin with none of the shakiness of the first two records and both songs have a disarming beauty to them. "All the Wine" (which would eventually reappear on Alligator) brings a touch of levity and lightness into the proceedings with its tongue-in-cheek rock star charm, retaining much of the fun that peaked through Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers but retaining the DNA of the songs around it and sounding like the work of the same band. "Cherry Tree" grows slowly until it unfurls into a furious riot, Berninger bringing back the screamer vocals and ripping off his gentlemanly suave to reveal something unhinged and unpredictable from underneath - shaking up the entire EP at the same time, as so far all the tracks have largely kept their feet gently on the ground (bar "All the Wine" going a little wild when its guitars start soaring while the song has its last cheeky tipple) and suddenly "Cherry Tree" adds an edge to the established sound. Each song showcases something new about the band but everything ties together logically, showcasing The National's newly-found range but without breaking apart internally - and they're all great songs, to boot.

And then, of course, there's "About Today". It's the undeniable star of the EP and the number one reason why this EP has swung from a fan cult classic to a must-have part of The National's discography. It's a deceptively simple song, built entirely upon a twinkling guitar melody and a gentle drum loop, all so unassuming that at first it sounds like a gentle outro for the EP following the title track's maelstrom. Then Newsome's violin appears and it's the single most heartbreaking sound you could think of. Berninger mumbles through apologies, regrets and worries, like a man who is worried that the slightest wrong move might make his entire life crumble to pieces: the conversational lyrics are as straightforward as the music, but Berninger's delivery gives it aching heft that digs deep and hard into the soul. Unlike the more famous live version - which still forms part of the grand finale for the band's concerts - this original version doesn't contain the extended outro descending into an overwhelming barrage of noise; instead it concludes with the sudden quietness of a gentle ellipsis, a cliffhanger to-be-continued that leaves the song's narrative thread painfully open. "About Today" is one of The National's all-time greats and a perfect example of the sheer emotional weight this band can conjure out of the simplest ingredients through their talent, and it would make a genuinely stunning way to close this set of songs.

Except it doesn't, as is obvious from the tracklisting. The last two songs on the EP are almost like bonus tracks, but they both in their own way highlight the band's two new collaborators and I suspect that's why they're abruptly stuck together in the end like this. "Murder Me Rachael" was one of the lesser songs on Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers and the band and Katis (who produced the album version) agree with me there. Neither party was happy with how the final version of the song turned out on the record and so this live version, taken from the 2003 Black Sessions, is a way to reclaim the track that the group knew had more potential. They are absolutely correct as well: the song as presented here sounds so much sharper and fiercer than it did on the album and comfortably becomes something genuinely worth a mention and a listen, in large part thanks to the addition of Newsome's shredding violin which cuts through the guitars and injects an additional layer of force into the storming rock number. "Reasonable Man" meanwhile is Newsome's song altogether, both written and largely performed by him with some backing vocals from Berninger; calling it a song by The National feels completely incorrect. Its inclusion sounds and feels like a favour and thank you from the band to their good friend, but it's a bit of a slog to get through: Newsome isn't really lead vocalist material, the tune itself isn't particularly engaging and it moves like molasses. It's woefully out of place like, well, a bonus song that's not part of the regular tracklist and has been lazily tacked onto the end like an errant playlist addition. If you see these two songs as extra material they make an awful lot more sense - like b-sides to a non-existent single - and while "Murder Me Rachael" does ultimately earn its place in the sequence to some degree, "Reasonable Man" never shakes off the impression of being the odd one out.

Nonetheless, with five genuine highlights of various strengths and a good bonus live cut to complement them, Cherry Tree is not just a great EP but it's also a genuine key part of The National's history: it's the bridge between the slightly off-colour early years and the suddenly more confident and thrilling band that would make a name for themselves from the next album onward. From a pure writing perspective the first five songs make up what could easily have been of the all-time great EPs, and so it's a bit of a shame that the "extras" muddy the waters to some degree, but honestly? This is still an essential milestep to include in any National collection, discography binge, etc.

Physically: This is the last of the releases under the band's own Brassland label and it follows suite with the previous releases: i.e., a jewel case with a simple one-fold booklet, consisting of the credits with limited extra artwork.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2005 9 "Secret Meeting", "The Geese of Beverly Road", "Mr. November"

1) Secret Meeting; 2) Karen; 3) Lit Up; 4) Looking for Astronauts; 5) Daughters of the Soho Riots; 6) Baby, We'll Be Fine; 7) Friend of Mine; 8) Val Jester; 9) All the Wine; 10) Abel; 11) The Geese of Beverly Road; 12) City Middle; 13) Mr. November

What it sounds like when a hungry and ambitious band are given the means to unchain themselves and they take every advantage of the opportunity.

Alligator is the "actual" start to the story of The National, certainly to the story that most know. After the Cherry Tree EP and the subsequent live shows creating an increasing buzz around the band, they had finally outgrown the Dessners' wee Brassland boutique label and signed up with Beggars Banquet, and as the rest of the world was now looming beyond the gates of possibility they kicked the doors down with ambition, hunger and determination. The tale from thereon in is familiar to anyone who has kept tabs on post-millennial indie rock as The National quickly established themselves as one of the key names of 2000s alternative, quickly and naturally slipping into an established industry veteran status in just the few years that followed this album. Alligator in itself, however, is a glimpse to a brief moment in time when The National were already operating on that wavelength that would carry them to the top, but they were yet to ascend there: the climb is still ahead and the band are pumping themselves up in anticipation.

Alligator is an intimate album but only in the sense of how it sounds like you're sitting in the same room with the band, facing five people (and the occasional extra) playing their hearts out so close you can almost feel the ruckus in the room. The National's albums are typically carefully constructed studio releases, their interviews often revealing the methodical ways of how the band figure out how each song works specifically within the album's context before they reinvent the songs again for the stage - and that's part of their magic! Alligator, by contrast, simply captures a group of friends sharing the same musical space and being invigorated by the tangible chemistry between one another without much in the way of any additional fancywork. The focus in Alligator's sound is always tightly in how the band interacts with each other, the songs coming to life in short bursts of energy that dynamically bounces off between the different players and instruments. Everyone fills each other's breaks and Berninger rambles his non-sequiturs on top of them, switching between the guises of a lost millennial trapped in an urban hell and an unravelling maniac with a flicker like a man possessed. If you ever watch any live footage of The National from the early-mid 2000s (thank you Youtube and the people who have uploaded such precious footage), you can witness the blueprint for what the band would try to achieve with Alligator: to capture this once relatively composed band as they've become their most explosive in their dynamics. The song material reflects this too, as the signature slow mood pieces are a clear minority and instead the heart of the record lies in its storming whirlwind rock numbers guided by guitars and propelled forward by Devendorf's hypnotic drumming - now evolved into the shape he's most recognisable for, where his drum patterns act like a series of fills taking control of the entire beat. It's a kinetic album, always running forward with some considerable muscle.

It's also evocative, immediate and cohesive. Evocative, because despite the fire under its feet and the beautifully streamlined production (a perfect example of a "basic" production job that actually adds to the album's strength) which accentuates the hit of the instruments above anything else, it casts a long tall shadow of tone and mood over the music. Alligator is full of stories of people on the cusp of that invisible border where the wilderness of youth suddenly becomes an ill-defined adulthood with jobs, responsibilities and the complications that arise from those and which begin to muddle life. It's a New York album through and through in its urban socialite thematics, but as experienced by people who are finding themselves out of place in the same New York clubs that would be buzzing about them ("the most important people in New York are nineteen", Berninger muses in "Val Jester"); the alcohol is still flowing but we're starting to change from the uninhibited party animal to the zoned-out human with a messy hair and an undone tie realising, reliving and regretting every word he's said over the course of the night. It's very often a funny album, albeit in a way that sneakily puts itself down if you read between the lines ("Karen" is practically tragicomical in this way, switching so quickly from the absurd "it's a common fetish for a doting man / to ballerina on the coffee table cock in hand" to the downright pathetic pleading in the later verses), but also honest and sincere enough that it feels relatable even when it doesn't strictly speaking apply to your life: Berninger captures something universal in how he approaches these topics and conveys it with conviction. The music strikes between the lines and underlines the punchlines and the plot twists, and begins to weave an atmosphere around the record that makes it feel lived in and real. That's where part of the immediacy comes from too. The National's albums are often stereotyped as slow burners which take a while to weave their webs around the listener's heart, but Alligator feels right from the first listen. How could it not with an opener as vivid and enthralling as "Secret Meeting", with the giddy step it has and the squint-and-you'll-see-it funk-like groove to it that pulls the rug off your feet from the first cymbal crash, eventually and seamlessly transforming into another grand emotional anthem playing to you while you're still lying on the ground.

But most importantly of all, there's that cohesiveness. Alligator is by and far the best set of songs that The National have released so far, bringing in a hit after hit across all thirteen songs: thanks to the brevity of most of the songs, it can feel like a barrage where you've only just gotten over the last set before the next one arrives. The evolutionary steps witnessed in Cherry Tree are now part of the band's core DNA and "All The Wine" is actually a better fit here than it was on the EP, its drunkenly joyous bar crawl parade mingling perfectly with the rest of the urban nightlife observations that the album is composed of. Like mentioned before, the skeleton that the rest of the album is built over is made out loud and fast rock numbers that make their emotional turbulence sound liberating and joyous: the manic "Abel" that runs around the room knocking against the walls but sounding so jubilant about it, the genuinely celebratory "Lit Up" and the iconic floor-storming anthem of a closer "Mr. November" on the more direct end, and on the other end the suaver cuts in the middle ("Looking for Astronauts", "Baby, We'll Be Fine", "Friend of Mine") which mix that same adrenaline together with finesse and deft in their touch. They're vibrant and full of life and vigour: a run through some of the most vibrantly buzzing and surging tracks of The National's entire career. Even the slow songs come in with a band-centric energy that gives them that extra lightning jolt of strength, through the crashing drums that count the rhythm in last dance of the night "The Geese of Beverly Road" or the way "Val Jester" and "Daughters of the Soho Riots" gently swivel around the listener, once again so crucially steered by Devendorf's drumming which is just a highlight of every song it's in. And the absence of all of that for most of its runtime, in turn, is what makes the subtly orchestrated "City Middle" such a key piece in the running order, as the final breather before "Mr. November" storms out of the room - the slow and gentle finale of "City Middle" is one of the album's most hair-raising moments, and quite epic in its relative simplicity.

Everything's simply great, to the extent that trying to elegantly summarise the highlights becomes an impossible task and just leads into a long list of songs where eventually I've just laid out the entire tracklist in a jumbled up order. I tried, honest.

Throughout it all, it's the feel of it all that always rises to the surface. I spend so much talking about Alligator's energy in various ways and turns of phrase because at the end of the day, that's what keeps flooring me time and time again. The clear hunger in the band's every bite, the intensity of their performance, the ambition and desire to make every song the single most gripping thing you've heard so far - it's thrilling and it absolutely takes over me every single time this album is on. I swear, I become a complete dork when Alligator is playing, almost by reflex: I sing along to every cheeky line and chorus hook, I tap my foot and do a little dance on my spot to the rhythmically more elaborate songs, I whip out my air drum kit to half the album without even noticing because how could you not hear what Devendorf is doing and not want to be a drummer? I can't listen to Alligator and not start to live its songs through my own body, like a puppy to an entire band of Pavlovs; and it's embarrassing and probably a really stupid way to finish a review that started out as such a normal music nerd ramble, but I would be kidding myself if I tried to explain why I love this album and not touch at all on the sheer magnitude of the grip it has. It's what I mean by the feeling of this album being its defining point for me: the songs are incredible, but it's the energy that steals me away each and every time.

A classic, career-unfolding debut. Two albums late for that, but twice as hungry.

Physically: We're on a different label now so we're getting an actual booklet, mostly made out of very blurry photos of the various members. Everything encased in a jewel case.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2007 10 "Fake Empire", "Mistaken for Strangers", "Slow Show"

1) Fake Empire; 2) Mistaken for Strangers; 3) Brainy; 4) Squalor Victoria; 5) Green Gloves; 6) Slow Show; 7) Apartment Story; 8) Start a War; 9) Guest Room; 10) Racing Like a Pro; 11) Ada; 12) Gospel

If you've ever heard The National being called a band that grows on you, it's this. This is the reason. This quiet, intricate masterpiece.

Out of The National's albums, Boxer is the quiet one. The more intense or high adrenaline cuts are left to the other albums and even at its most energetic this still sounds drawn inwards, moving through the empty streets with the hazy mind of an insomniac. It's an album that sounds like it was recorded in a practice space at 4am when everyone but the band have gone to bed: much of the album was in fact recorded in makeshift studios in people's homes, which makes sense (and if you wanted to, you could imagine they were trying to be politely quiet so as not to disturb others). Where the lyrical personas on Alligator were growing people in urban jungles experiencing the first signs of unelegant adulthood creeping up behind them, on Boxer the ship has already sailed and its narrators are now lost in the vastness of suit-and-tie dinners, soulless offices and fading relationships, trying to hold onto some deeper meaning while pretending to be more grown-up than they are. It's an album of mid-age anxiety, emo for the sad dads in the audience, but every description (cheeky or otherwise) doesn't quite accurately reflect on the subtle devastation of sudden directionlessness in life that the lyrics convey. Nor does the music underline it or highlight it, instead it delicately orchestrates the backing for it. Boxer doesn't wield the same snappy hooks that Alligator did, it lets the notions linger and eventually take over naturally. It's in no hurry.

One of the frequent conversation pieces around The National (which I'm not sure is quite as widespread anymore) is that they are or were the epitome of a grower band: that no one ever really madly hit off with them at first sight but something compelled people to keep returning to their music and before they could realise, the album was speaking to them on a personal level. It wasn't even used as a dismissive remark, everyone just seemed to carry an anecdote around about how it tooks weeks or months and suddenly it was like they were living through every note like the albums had been there for them for years - and somehow it was a surprise for every newcomer. Boxer is where the bulk of that reputation stems from. The band haven't changed and the dynamic interplay that was all over Alligator is present and accounted for, but utilised differently. Devendorf's fluid and propulsive drumming still leads the songs - essays could be written on his drumming and I probably will in the course of all my National reviews - and both Dessners have now become multi-instrumentalists as the guitars are no longer the de facto lead on the songs, which leads to an increasingly varied range of elements across the songs. But what's not playing is just as important as the impressive instrumental chops everyone wields. Boxer lets its construction blocks breathe and the songs seem to be made out of a number of small and unconvoluted details that come together to form a deeply intricate musical backing. Not coincidentally, the songs from Boxer's songs have gone through the greatest transformations when the band perform them live, with extended outros, new or expanded instrumental sections and other changes which make the songs more obviously powerful in a way, lighting a new kind of fire in the songs' engines, and many of those elements feel so integral that it's like the songs were composed with them in mind - and given these alternative versions began to appear as early as the album's release year, they likely were. But on the album, everything is pared down to the absolute essentials - and it works and it's the right thing for this cohesive selection.

By placing equal emphasis on the quiet parts and small details as much as it does on grander gestures like, let's say, a triumphant horn-carried finale ("Fake Empire") or a massive heart-swelling chorus ("Mistaken for Strangers"), Boxer becomes a hypnotic experience. Part of its grower appeal is in how each listen you discover something new and those little revelations then reconfigure how you approach these songs going forward, turning the whole album into a chase to look for further rewards and sinking deeper into your old findings. It's an album to get lost in: to close your eyes with your headphones on, to soundtrack moments of stillness or times when you need to find 40-odd minutes of stillness to help make sense of the world. Boxer isn't all hush-hush and placid even though I may give that impression: "Squalor Victoria" is a rousing, fist-pumping call to arms, "Mistaken for Strangers" is full of vigour and is one of the band's greatest individual stand-outs, "Apartment Story" has a brightness and looseness that temporarily brushes off the album's post-midnight haze, "Brainy" is a tight and tumultuous post-punk cut that somehow sounds so at ease, and the melodic runs and swiveling choruses of "Ada" are vibrant and full of life, almost a classic pop song which has gone through The National's filter and become integrated with their world. But the same sonic principles carry throughout the album and including those songs, and these intervals where the band deliberately stand up for attention are utilised carefully, to blow new wind to the sails without taking away from the tight mood that Boxer constructs around itself.

All these changes, these shifts in gears, build up to a 12-song experience that I've pretentiously titled as one of my all-time favourite albums; there's a perfect score right there, next to the cover. You can break down why exactly that is by focusing on three particular aspects of the album - and the first and most obvious one is that it's packed full of great songs. It has a number of tracks that would comfortably fit into the band's top 15, and easily even into their top 10 greatest cuts. Out of those, three in particular are above everything else. "Fake Empire" is at the top of the hill - a simple, weary ode to whatever you want it to be, whether it's for the last drinks of the night, the conflicted feelings you have of the country you live in (very relatable in the 2020s UK, a true fake empire at this stage!) or the merciful suggestion to forget all of that for a brief second because every hummingbird heart needs to rest at some point. In either case it's such a powerfully gripping statement that it's the antithesis to any of the claims the album takes a while to grow on you, and in its soaring elegance it's probably my favourite song by the band. "Mistaken for Strangers" I've already hinted at being one of the band's most defining statements, a rock anthem that's a direct evolution from Alligator's centrepieces but drenched in atmosphere and quiet rage and sorrow: "another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults" may as well be the band's motto. "Slow Show" just a few songs later arguably pulls the biggest emotional punches of the entire record, its uncharacteristically direct and (tragically) relatable anxiety being lifted by a heartfelt appreciation of finding someone you can brush off those intrusive thoughts with. Its directly stadium-adjacent grand build-ups are not just wonderful in their own right, but finds the band foreseeing their future and preparing for it in advance - on the often unassuming Boxer, it's the big tearjerker torchlight song of the night.

Beyond those three, it's generally classics all the way down. The already-mentioned "Ada" and "Squalor Victoria" are easy runner-ups for the prize places, the gentle closing lullaby "Gospel" channels so beautifully and effortlessly the fragile peace that the album ultimately leans towards and leaves behind a downright cleansing feeling as it quietly ends the album, and "Green Gloves" and "Start a War" most accurately represent the album's approach to production and arrangement, patiently building their respective soundscapes until they fully dominate the air with their sudden grandeur. The piano intermission "Racing Like a Pro" and the propelling "Guest Room" are the underrated duo of the lot, appearing together to guide the album towards its end and often getting lost in the noise but they're strong compositions, where "Guest Room" has some of the most immediately effective choruses of the album and the stark power of "Racing Like a Pro" is particularly poignant. It's a cohesive, consistently engaging set of songs with a surprising amount of variety in tone in-between them despite the shared aesthetics.

Another key factor is that despite having such a heavy heart, it's by no means a deeply melancholy album. Or, well, it is, but it's found a way to channel that into a kind of comfort - that if you're feeling the same, here's a shoulder to lean onto. Berninger plays a heavy role here and his mumble is an incredible asset: it's a voice that can just as easily make a line hit deep in the nerve as it can strip away the edge from any such message and maybe even raise a wry smile while at it. His vocals receive even more of a central spot on Boxer than it has on previous albums and while that's partly attributable to the overall arrangement decisions made with the instrument, it does also feel like the band had properly realised at this stage the power that Berninger's charisma brought to the band and so gave him an increased spotlight to capitalise on that. The music is wonderful, the songs are great - but Berninger is what makes them sound so personal, even welcoming. The insecurities, conflicts and hard decisions - and the moments of incidental happiness in between - that flicker through the lyrics are told with the warmth of a friend who's here to keep you company. And so Boxer stops being a downer and becomes downright soothing. It's a little strange to use a term like "cosy" from an album that on the offset really doesn't tick the kinds of boxes you normally associate with that term, but there's a very intimate quality to Boxer and it's comforting to get lost in that space.

And as you may be able to infer from that alone, Boxer has become a stalwart companion over the years - that's the third aspect I referred to. I love Boxer so of course I have my grower anecdote as well: how I discovered the band through "Fake Empire", how I then spent literally the next several hours looping that song over and over again because something about it struck me so strongly, and how my first listens through the actual album left me disappointed because nothing in it had the majesty of "Fake Empire". We know how the story goes on from there, and during all those subsequent listens where I kept unlocking parts of the album and discovered new depths, it became a personal fortress of solitude to retreat into where the songs became close friends. Somewhere along the line its mixture of melancholy and warmth became something to hold onto and seek out whenever I've needed to take a breather from things for forty-odd minutes. Boxer has long since ceased to be just an album of great songs, it's a friendly refuge and a state of mind. It's also what - once it all finally clicked - made me fall in love with The National, so it's special in that way as well. There's no real "objective" way for me to describe why it's so great, but albums as magical and personally close as this are few and far between. If The National's growth across their first four albums has been a state of constant reconfiguration and starting over every time with the teachings of the past fresh in mind, then Boxer is where they figured out their unique essence and how to go about building something that is uniquely, distinctively them - and it scored them a masterpiece.

Physically: Jewel case with a fold-out booklet featuring a shot of the band. No lyrics, but across the photo you have lyric quotes from the b-side "Tall Saint" ("stay down champion, stay down") and "Ada" ("let them all have your neck").


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2008 8 "You've Done It Again, Virginia", "Blank Slate", "Tall Saint (Demo)"

1) You've Done It Again, Virginia; 2) Santa Clara; 3) Blank Slate; 4) Tall Saint (Demo); 5) Without Permission; 6) Forever After Days (Demo); 7) Rest of Years (Demo); 8) Slow Show (Demo); 9) Lucky You (Daytrotter Session); 10) Mansion on the Hill (Live); 11) Fake Empire (Live); 12) About Today (Live)

A victory lap for Boxer - if you liked that album, you'll like these outtakes.

Boxer was a smash success, making The National one of the hottest names in indie rock and lifting them on the pedestal they now call their home. The release of The Virginia EP (which is very much not an EP and it is genuinely annoying, thanks very much) is a victory lap for the band, celebrating the great run they've had with their latest album by bundling together assorted miscellanea around the record and continuing the applause for a little while longer. Furthermore, the music half of this collection is arguably secondary in perceived importance in comparison to the behind the scenes documentary A Skin, a Night, by Vincent Moon, which comes bundled up with the album (and on my copy occupies the "front" side of the package). The trouble is, Moon's documentary is obnoxiously incoherent and put together in a way that pushes forward artistic visual experimentation over (actually interesting) footage of the band putting together the record, and you don't come off it any the wiser about Boxer than you started as the actual "story" (as it were) is kept to a minimum. I've not even bothered rewatching it for the purposes of this review, it's not worth seeking out and that's the last I'll talk of it - I'm judging this package entirely on the merit of the music.

Though they are a set of outtakes, demos and live cuts these songs are also, you know, Boxer-adjacent and in some cases just different versions of the album songs altogether. Boxer is a masterpiece of an album and the creative high the band were on is also apparent in the off-cuts, including the demos - most of them (bar "Slow Show" and we'll get to that) are original songs and they're mainly demos only because the production and mix are rougher. The notable difference between the new songs presented on The Virginia EP and Boxer is that the latter's weary subtlety is largely missing; if anything, the sound and the vibe of the music here land somewhere in the halfway point between Alligator and Boxer. But it's also next to impossible not to enjoy this if you loved Boxer, and so it makes for a pretty good companion piece.

The new studio tracks are obviously the biggest catch here, and I'm including "Tall Saint" in this list because even though it's labelled as a demo, it's separated from the rest of the demos and quite frankly sounds like a full studio production so much that it feels like a mistake. All the songs are obvious outtakes but not because they aren't good, but rather because they occupy slots which ultimately were taken over by better songs doing the same thing on Boxer proper: "You've Done It Again, Virginia" is a swaying hook delivery machine led by Sufjan Stevens' piano just like "Ada" was, the contemplative "Santa Clara" finishes with a "Fake Empire"-esque parade of horns, "Blank Slate" is a muscular rock number akin to "Mistaken for Strangers" and "Tall Saint" is the centerpiece slowburn anthem in the vein of "Slow Show". Had they included any of these on Boxer instead of what made it to the album in thend, it probably would have been a lesser and less cohesive album, but the songs themselves are actually great for most parts. The tipsy wooziness of "Virginia" and the adrenaline of "Blank Slate" have a more overt sense of fun than anything on the main album (which wasn't dour, just more sly about it), and "Blank Slate" in particular is really reminiscent of Alligator in all the good ways. "Tall Saint" is also a really beautiful song and you can understand why at one point it seems to have had an assumed slot on the record, as its climactic "stay down champion, stay down" lyric is printed in big letters in the album's booklet. "Santa Clara" is the only one which leaves little impression behind it, moderately catchy though it is and its respective horn outro is still nicely put together - but it's an obvious b-side. There's also "Without Permission", a Caroline Martin cover which in The National's hands sounds like a song of their own in all its pleasant melancholy; once again, nothing too outstanding perhaps but it has a cosy atmosphere to it which makes it a good piece to sink into for a little bit.

"Forever After Days" and "Rest of Years" aren't quite as fleshed-out as the previous tracks - hence the demo qualifier - but as already alluded to they're complete enough to the point that they're just studio cuts with a more lo-fi aesthetic, and "Forever After Days" with its sparse acoustic guitar and organ accompaniment is a lovely little palate cleanser of sorts that stands up for itself well. "Rest of Years" is another rowdier number that threatens to go aggressive and I feel like only the band's hesitance to lay down some power chords is the only thing preventing it from going completely wild. It probably would've have been stronger for it, too, because as it is now it's the flimsiest of the brand new original material that's been presented and is mainly an interesting aside. The center section's biggest point of interest is the demo of "Slow Show" because it's a really fascinating look at how the band constructs their songs and how Berninger isn't afraid to recycle lyrics if he wasn't pleased how they were used the first time. The original "Slow Show" already had some of this with its outro having been uplifted from the debut album's "29 Years", but that excerpt is missing from its demo version and instead this draft take features lyric excerpts that would later appear on "Brainy" and "Blank Slate": one of the verses of the original "Slow Show" in fact becomes the chorus for "Blank Slate", and "Blank Slate" itself is near-whole rewrite of the Alligator b-side "Keep It Upstairs" to begin with, with the new ex-"Slow Show" lyrics slotted in and turning this into a whole big row of dominoes. The music too is like a mix of the final "Slow Show" with the tempo and hints of the rhythm of "Blank Slate", and the experience is like a retrospective Frankenstein's monster, discovering the original body after all its various appendages had found other uses. It's the sort of thing that I, personally, look forward to the most when I listen to demo versions, to get that insight into the writing process where little facets of the song's history are revealed. It's a pure curio thing for hardcore fans only - but if you've come for a Boxer b-sides compilation, chances are you're in the target audience to be fascinated by this.

The live tracks close off the compilation neatly enough and there isn't too much to talk about them. The Daytrotter session of "Lucky You" nicely highlights the band's oft-forgotten history for the new audiences who may have only been familiar with Alligator and Boxer (speaking from experience) and it's a beautiful stripped down take on the song, and "Fake Empire" is just as magnificent live as it is on the album. The Bruce Springsteen cover "Mansion on the Hill" is, as far as I can tell, an original arrangement by The National instead of having been based on any known E Street Band live versions (the original Springsteen album version bears a stark naked acoustic arrangement) and they effectively just turn it into a National song complete with a building-up Devendorf beat - the heartfelt melancholy of the song suits the band and they play it well. The key attraction of the last third is "About Today", because before the band re-recorded the song in 2011 this was effectively the canonical version, featuring the extended noise collision jam finale that is completely missing from the original Cherry Tree studio version. I still prefer the original EP take but the live outro has become a traditional part of the band's concerts and in practice is synonymous with the song, so having it officially documented here has an actual point. And it's a cracking live version to begin with.

I've already spoiled the final conclusion earlier on: it's a good accompaniment for Boxer and the logical thing to listen to if you enjoy the main album itself. Very little here is truly essential but nearly all of it is really good, frequently great and sometimes even intriguing. Everything here has a reason for its inclusion, even the demos and live tracks; you could have easily come up with a more slapdash "deluxe disc" if you wanted to but The Virginia EP bears the clear signs of the curators of this compilation caring about their job. If you're specifically seeking out reviews of this album in the first place, you're likely a devoted enough National fan to know it's going to be worth the listen. For The National themselves, this neatly capped the incredibly good few years the band had had and cleared the slate for the next studio album.

Physically: A DVD-box sized cardboard fold-out/gate-fold with digipak style center pop-outs to store the discs in (so the square cover there isn't really representing the real deal). It's a bizarre mash up of a DVD case and a typical CD gatefold/digipak packaging, like they couldn't decide which type of case this double feature should come and so they did both at the same time. It's just tall enough not to fit neatly in with the rest of the band's albums in my current shelf, I have to keep it upside down because the CD cover is on the "reverse" and it opens up rather awkwardly. It looks neat and special but it's actually quite clumsy.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2010 10 "Terrible Love", "Bloodbuzz Ohio", "England"

1) Terrible Love; 2) Sorrow; 3) Anyone's Ghost; 4) Little Faith; 5) Afraid of Everyone; 6) Bloodbuzz Ohio; 7) Lemonworld; 8) Runaway; 9) Conversation 16; 10) England; 11) Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
Expanded Edition CD2: 1) Terrible Love (Alternate Version); 2) Wake Up Your Saints; 3) You Were a Kindness; 4) Walk Off; 5) Sin-Eaters; 6) Bloodbuzz Ohio (Live on the Current); 7) Anyone's Ghost (Live at Brooklyn Academy of Music); 8) England (Live at Brooklyn Academy of Music)

Bigger songs, bigger hooks - stepping up to the all-time great leagues with confident stride.

High Violet was the moment to go big. The National were standing on the edge of a great leap forward and they knew it, and they met the pressure by grabbing the bull by the horns. High Violet was approached with the mindset that there's no shame in coming out of the shadows, to grow beyond the confinements of a cult band. For that purpose the album needed to be something more immediate: the band wanted to exterminate their reputation as a grower act and thus set out to write songs that would strike a chord with the audience on the first listen, not the fifteenth. All the stops were pulled for High Violet - the band members experimented with how they arranged their own parts, they made the decision to largely self-produce the album so they could be in control of every little detail, they expanded the instrumentation and then they hired the créme de la créme of indie rock as session musicians (Justin Vernon, Sufjan Stevens, Richard Reed Parry, etc) to play those expanded horizons. Songs were now allowed to go big if it seemed natural to take them into that direction, in start contrast to how many of Boxer's subtle songs were bombastic crowd-pleasers at heart but were calmed down for the record, and it turned out that once they popped open the lid going big became the default setting. Each song went through multiple levels of scrutiny so that they'd come out the best they can, "Lemonworld" famously taking 40-odd iterations while in search of the ultimate way to play the song until the band (like a cliché) returned to the original demo; same happened with "Terrible Love" which was kept in its noisy, rudimentary spew of a form instead of the polished anthem version they had also recorded, because it's what the band felt would be best for the record. Every single thing they placed on the album had to be the very best thing they ever recorded.

You can just tell when an artist goes 150%, all-in on their work. High Violet isn't graceful about it either: it hammers that point in throughout its eleven songs, where even the lighter palate cleansers and tone setters end up swelling with a kind of untouchable grandeur you can't help but admire. High Violet is what happens when great ambition meets tremendous dedication; The National are fully aware they've hit something brilliant and they display their skills with cocksure confidence. Breaking down why it's actually that great feels practically redundant, because if you're even remotely in the ballpark for the kind of alternative rock sound that The National operate in, the strengths here are so obvious and describing it is almost like rubbing it in the audience's face.

Hyperbolic statements aside - but it's a 10/10 album review so you'd have to have been prepared for that - nothing on High Violet is unfamiliar if you've paid attention to the last two albums. The National's discography so far has been chaotic but it's been one of constant evolution (and restarts) and the string that's been running through and connecting it all together are the very same foundational elements that High Violet has now been built on. The difference with High Violet is that not only are those ideas - the multi-faceted and detailed arrangements, the soaring peaks and dynamic valleys, the near-melodic rhythmic work, the resonant heartstring-tugging energy powering it - brought together into the open and all together at the same time, but they've all been represented in the absolute best way that they can be without a single moment of hesitation. This is absolutely a grander and more bombastic experience than its predecessors: the horn section has become a fixed part of The National's core sound (and is here to stay), there's a string orchestra backing the band up throughout the album and half the album's songs end in a grand stand-off climax, and most of the ones that don't are just in the highest gear right from the start. It's a blend of the last two albums but it ends up making its own unique direction in the process: the dynamics and energy of Alligator combined with the intricacy and resonance of Boxer, served in a manner where each song aims to be if not a potential hit single then a stand-out which could realistically be the favourite song for someone who hears it. And appropriately, it is a more immediate listening experience just like the band sought for it to be, with Berninger's voice mixed far clearer and the songs come backed up by not just powerful hooks but any space in-between the vocal melodies features some sort of attention-grabbing detail or a counter melody from someone in the band. That's not a bad thing because it's all in service of the natural tendencies in the band's songwriting in the first instance, amplifying what was already apparent. High Violet sounds ready for the stadiums the band were perhaps even daydreaming of, having had their taste of them when supporting R.E.M. some time prior, with Berninger having openly expressed being inspired by R.E.M. in how they seized onto their growing significance with a more direct approach but under their own ruleset. That's also what The National are doing with High Violet and it sounds completely natural for their evolution.

If you wanted to boil down High Violet to its very essentials, the answer lies in the trifecta of "Terrible Love", "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "England", a set of three songs which to some degree represent everything High Violet sets out to be. "Terrible Love" begins the album largely where we left the band off last time, brooding in atmosphere and slowly pounding ahead through a gentle intro that doesn't give a single hint about where the song eventually goes; and so when that surge of a lift-off into the chorus happens for the first time, it's like the plane suddenly took off under your feet and you didn't even realise you were on an aircraft to begin with. The first chorus is cut short like a teaser, which makes the eventual ascent into a storming anthem all the more thrilling - there's a reason the band would treat this as a closer for their main concert sets, because that final rush is so overwhelming in both its genuinely exciting joy and wounding melancholy (a bittersweet mix that this album absolutely runs on) that it acts like a crescendo before the album has even had a chance to properly begin. It sounds muddy and grim, the final climax a turbulent tornado of noise: but the rawness makes a striking and powerful starting point for the record, and the clarity of the subsequent songs is like a veil lifting up dramatically. "Bloodbuzz Ohio", then, is what you get when you let those same instincts run wild and free into their logical end point. It's the ur-National rocker, the final form of what "Abel" and then "Mistaken for Strangers" started. It was always a centrepiece song but over time has come to represent the ultimate National experience with its layered power and surging emotion: heartbreaking but fierce, emotionally turbulent but played with such tight control and grip that it's almost empowering. And "England" finally takes off all the rough edges and presents something that is simply a beautiful and earnest torchlight moment: it's completely one-of-a-kind in The National's discography in how much an uncomplicated - no - unobstructed final fireworks anthem it is. It hits all the right spots with every trick it pulls out of its sleeve, from the theatrical horn stabs to the sing-along outro. These songs are the three-act heist of The National seeing the crown in front of their eyes and taking it as their own. All three are enormous songs but they're also intimate, honing into the very personal elements and the human center amidst the massive sound: they reach out in an universal way but do it as if the spotlight was aimed at you alone. And that is what all in all makes High Violet the cornerstone that it is. That personal intensity.

There's a great quote from Berninger from an interview around the tenth anniversary of the record, where he discusses the album's longevity and draws parallels to his own experiences and how it channelled into the band's approach for the album. To quote verbatim:

“All the songs I’ve ever loved are fluid enough for me to sink into them and be the character. You empathise and get inside their soul a little bit. Whatever’s wrong in your heart or in your life, the record absorbs it like a sponge. Later, you play it again and all of that emotion comes out again. All the things we needed were always there in good songs.”

Which, as a general observation, is a pin-point accurate way to explain why music can matter so much to its listeners. It's also really hilarious to me in a completely unintended way because I was reading various articles and interviews on this album while trying to organise my thoughts about it into something more coherent, and then I see Berninger just blurting the answer out so blatantly - like pointing at me through the screen to explain why this album became something that mattered to me. To elaborate, High Violet came out around a time period when a number of lingering issues haunting the back of my mind began to feel increasingly tangible: between university burn-out, feeling foreign in a strange culture still after a few years of living in the country I now called home, and watching how the first proper cracks in my relationship at the time had started to appear, 2011 was in hindsight not the best of times. The lyrics on High Violet go through Berninger's usual tropes of adulthood anxiety and the strengths and flaws of relationships with other people, told through a mix of searing honesty, dry dark humour, absurdist exaggeration and a number of incredibly specific references that only really make sense for the person who wrote them. Absolutely nothing that I was in any position of relating to, in other words. But they were just fluid enough for me to step into the skin of those narrators, using my imagination to cunningly change a lyric or detail in my mind to fit the song into something that I was going through. The songs became lifelines, ways to channel those feelings even if there wasn't a literal connection there. "Bloodbuzz Ohio", for example, described very little of my life in real detail but that notion of becoming so distant from where you grew up that no one recognises you in your small town anymore hit really hard for an expat in a foreign country, who'd already started feeling painfully distant from his roots.

These days I approach the lyrics with a far more observational way, appreciating the nuance in how Berninger tells them and considering what he actually means rather than what I wanted him to tell me. But there are still lines and even entire verses on the album that come with particular chills and emotional weights, which hold meanings that no one else will ever get out of them - ghosts of past thoughts that my mind can't shake. Lyrics that come with vivid memories of walking down particular streets reflecting on what I was hearing and what I was feeling, hyper-specific contextual associations which do not make for an interesting read but which are essential when it comes to voicing why High Violet is not just a great album but also a genuinely important album. Like Berninger said himself, all that experience has become absorbed into the music and now when I listen to the album, the memory of those old emotions comes back, reflected through the eyes of an older and (hopefully) wiser person. They're what you could call heartsongs, and you can't view that kind of music with any kind of objectivity.

But like Berninger is keen to point out in his quote, it's just as important that the songs in question are also generally great songs. The songs on High Violet are incredible songs, all of them. For all the brooding subtlety that the band are more often associated with, they can absolutely bring out those same emotional hits in a fashion that's exciting, thrilling and even jubilant. High Violet completes the band's transformation from guys scribbling music in someone's bedroom into a legitimate rock stars and they've done so with a perfectly finesse touch: it's almost arrogant how easily this seems to come to them, like conjuring this kind of majesty is effortless. Everything here is a winner and contains at least one moment when that particular song could conceivably take the title of the album's best song: in particular the final furious storm-out that the intense and stormy "Afraid of Everyone" hypnotically climbs up to, the middle-eight and final chorus explosion of "Anyone's Ghost" in which the band pre-emptively answer any accusations of selling out by showing what their interpretation of a three-minute pop song sounds like, and the chorus of "Conversation 16" where "I was afraid I'd eat your brains / Because I'm evil" is somehow turned into a powerful centrepiece statement when it's surrounded by an absolutely furious set of drums and exploding instruments (and the almost harrowing nature of the rest of the lyrics just makes that absurdist chorus all the more incredible). The talent at sustaining atmosphere through gentle shifts which Boxer was chock full of is taken even further in "Sorrow" with its tender brooding which grows so gently into a towering giant through the cunning use of layered harmonies alone, in the mournful horns of "Runaway" that make it arguably the band's most definite sad lament in a discography so full of them, and the jagged and unnervingly unfolding "Little Faith" which is almost groovy with its stop-start dynamics keeping you on your toes. Even "Lemonworld", which is legitimately intended to be a brief oasis of calm in this sea of big emotions, is downright gripping in its world-weary, looping nature.

And "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks"? As already alluded to before The National have made it a habit to let their songs evolve beyond their recorded forms as and when the band wheel them out in a live setting: some albums have seen this happen more than others but it's one of those regular constants that makes them exciting to watch live. 99% of the time, the songs grow - "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks", through sheer improvised coincidence, shrunk all the way down after the band finished an unplanned encore with a quietly huddled up and unplugged acoustic performance of the song, only to be met by every single voice in the audience singing the song right back at them. That intimate-yet-colossal rendition is now the song's definitive version and the one the band will always play; the version on High Violet is a fully fleshed out production, and yet you can tangibly detect exactly why this particular song saw such a devoted reaction from the crowd. On the album its form is much more expansive and intricate but it has the spirit of an intimate farewell and goodbye: a mournful celebration of everything that came before before the final light goes out. And in the best way possible, it's chilling - like a truly exceptional closer, it leaves the listener hanging in a way that the world around you feels a little different now that the album has finished and you've had that audio experience. You need an appropriate closer to close that circle, and that's what "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" is. The perfect end.

High Violet is one of the rare times where writing a paragraph out of each and every song would be justified, because they all bring something completely different to the table and they each play such an important part in the album's flow that you could probably go really nerdy about it and break every step down into its fine details. That's not something I could justify doing with a good chunk of my other perfect score albums: the struggle with these reviews is that they always come from a very emotional place and so the minute details are difficult to convey when they're more feelings rather than facts. But with High Violet it could be achievable. The band sought out to make the best set of songs they could come up with and the hard work paid off. They haven't sacrificed anything that made the last two albums classics, instead they've drilled down on everything that made them work so well. This is what a band operating at their peak performance and throwing themselves fearlessly into new challenges sounds like, even though that challenge was ironically to be less challenging. Its killer focus and direct assault of an approach are what make High Violet a singular kind of beast in the band's back catalogue: they could never pull this kind of thing off twice and so they never did, instead choosing to emphasise other aspects of their work or explore different whims. The idea burning at the back of their minds was to create a milestone: they created a masterpiece. High Violet is The National's best album; beyond that, it's my closest National album.

And then there's the Expanded Edition, which was released some months after the original album and comes with a number of additional tracks. Those songs not only neatly round up the era by pulling together most of the non-album material recorded in the same sessions, but it's also such a perfect epilogue for the original album that if you have the option to choose between the two versions, opt for this one. For one, it contains the cleaned up version of "Terrible Love" which the band originally deemed didn't fit the record, a decision they subsequently regretted because it's actually the definitive version of the song. The neater production primarily means that it's been brought closer in sound and arrangement to the rest of the record, and while the album version was superlative in itself the alternative version is even better: all those epic rises come across even more hair-raising now that all the individual drum hits are clearer and the horns bellow out with more gusto. If you think of "Terrible Love" the chances are it's this version playing in your head, and it's basically essential to have around.

Of the four studio tracks, the peppy "Wake Up Your Saints" and the regally brooding "You Were a Kindness" are both on par with anything on the main album, just not perhaps tonally appropriate which is why they didn't make the cut. The former shares its DNA with "Anyone's Ghost" (the same lyrics appear across both songs) but they also have that same direct hook-laden swagger, which is almost upbeat and just a lot of great fun; the latter sways and marches onwards while drowning in atmosphere, cutting its solemn sadness with beautifully textural production. "Walk Off" is a gentle piano piece that is in stark contrast with the deft arrangements of everything around it, and there's a simple power to its nakedness. "Sin-Eaters" meanwhile challenges every single attempt at being immediately approachable the album goes for: it's a bizarre gremlin of a song continuously twisting further inwards, crawling around in aloof time signatures and sudden tonal shifts - it's an experiment as much as it is a song, seemingly spawned out of any of the stranger ideas the band intentionally kept at bay for this album, and yet it's a compelling, mystifying little critter that somehow manages to be just as catchy as the actually comprehensible songs around it. All four are great and in most ways basically more of what the main album offered, though perhaps less extravagant. The three live versions all round off the set well: "Bloodbuzz Ohio" is quietly mournful in its acoustic form, "Anyone's Ghost" has a bit more of a firecracker underneath it as it takes on a more electrified form, and "England" was always a stadium anthem waiting for the right place to be played in and here it gets to prove its point wonderfully. It's a superb bonus set of songs and a must for any fan of the album. The only way this could have been even better is if the band had been able to include the two soundtrack cuts released around this period ("Exile Vilify" from Portal 2 and "Think You Can Wait" from Win Win) to turn this into the perfect summary of the High Violet era, but that's a could've-been and not actually a real flaw; but if you haven't heard those two songs, you should get to it as soon as possible.

Physically: I own this twice, in fact. The original version is a tri-gatefold that expands into a set of photos of each band member and the credits printed at the back - no booklet. The Expanded Edition comes in a slipcase and contains both the original album in its original packaging, as well as a cardboard sleeve which hosts the second CD.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2013 8 "I Should Live in Salt", "Don't Swallow the Cap", "Pink Rabbits"

1) I Should Live in Salt; 2) Demons; 3) Don't Swallow the Cap; 4) Fireproof; 5) Sea of Love; 6) Heavenfaced; 7) This Is the Last Time; 8) Graceless; 9) Slipped; 10) I Need My Girl; 11) Humiliation; 12) Pink Rabbits; 13) Hard to Find

The National playing the kind of songs you'd expect from The National. And that's perfectly fine by me!

It's taken six albums but we have finally reached a point where The National aren't pushing forward on the path of their own evolution. After the High Violet tour the band's intention was to take a short break but everyone was buzzing creatively, Berninger in particular who was churning out lyrics to the various music sketches the band had floating around, and they started work on Trouble Will Find Me in earnest shortly afterwards. Thus, not too surprisingly Trouble Will Find Me sounds a little like a spin off of High Violet, with the same overall production aesthetics, general direction and themes, and the differences are a giveaway of its origins: while the guest list is once again impressive the audible focus on the arrangements for the most parts is on the band as you'd find them on stage, and there's no real connecting thread between the songs outside the rough style parameters. It's more of the same, just slightly tweaked around the edges.

And that's where Trouble Will Find Me hits its unfair uphill. How do you really follow up the hat trick of band-defining classics without inviting comparisons to what came before, unless you were able to pull it off again somehow? Which hasn't happened here and the intentionally lower stakes that Trouble Will Find Me operates on all but ensures it: it's more of something very familiar to the point that it can come across like The National are on the way of typecasting themselves. It's the kind of album that sounds like what people who aren't familiar with the band imagine them to sound like based on everyone's descriptions, ticking off all the expected boxes. The National are operating on their comfort zone across the album, largely thanks to its origins following so closely from the heels of the last album before the band had a chance to plan out a route to the next stop. So naturally, in comparison, it's going to feel like a step down from the genre-defining classics that came before and thus gets a lower rating as a result. It's just that in this case, that "lower" rating is still a really high score.

Which shouldn't really come as a surprise. You could do an awful lot worse than use High Violet - you know, their masterpiece - as a launching pad towards further endeavours and the band are clearly motivated to carry on. After the three-album streak they'd just had they were clearly running on an imperial phase high and thanks to the extensive touring behind them, they had become a brilliantly tight unit as musicians. That has a direct effect to the music at play and there's a sneaky feeling hiding at the back of the mind that much of the album was designed to pop off live: the greatest of the crescendos and dramatic turns being built entirely on the core band's energy without the need for High Violet's orchestrations, something the likes of the firebellied guitars of "Sea of Love" and the post-punk stadium anthem "Don't Swallow the Cap" are more than happy to underline. The additional arrangement flairs only really come to play on the slower moments, the torchlight ballads and mood pieces - which also aren't particularly intimate this time around and seem to be built for the purpose of sounding as good in a loud arena as they do in someone's home setup.

There is also the simple fact that if staying in a comfort zone still provides you with inspiration, and not stagnation, then it doesn't make sticking to what you know a bad thing. Trouble Will Find Me is a great album even if it never showcases anything truly new for the band - the resonance is still there in the detailed sound textures, in the deep atmosphere, in the rich instrumentation and in Berninger's melancholy croon as they always have been. That's apparent in the amount of incredibly tight highlights which define the album: "I Should Live in Salt" makes an anthem out of world-weary wistfulness and remorse, the aforementioned "Don't Swallow the Cap" and "Sea of Love" are the best examples of the album's dynamics at play, the abruptly and powerfully transforming "This Is the Last Time" flows from tranquil guitars to a genuinely aching second half in the album's biggest left-field twist, and the beautiful guitar melodies of "I Need My Girl" are spellbinding and so full of space and grace. My low key favourite is "Pink Rabbits" tucked towards the very end, half-drunkenly swaying to the last dance of the night and quietly growing in confidence and heartbreak as the background textures and vocal harmonies build and build. "Demons" is worth a specific mention too just because it was the seemingly random lead single, swiveling around with time signatures in an elegant and beguiling fashion like the bizarre High Violet b-side "Sin-Eaters" brushed its hair and put on a suit and tie; it's a strange song to present so front and centre to the album and right in the beginning, but part of me wishes its off-kilterness fed into the rest of the album.

(as an aside that I couldn't fit comfortably in the middle of the text anywhere else, the explicit bluntness of "when I walk into the room I do not light it up... fuck" in "Demons", like Berninger's narrator is realising the rut in his life in real time and it hits him like a brick, is probably my favourite lyrical moment on an album full of equally excellent sections - the extended flower metaphor in the chorus of "Graceless" and which Berninger then continues in the eventual post-chorus is another favourite. Overall if there's one facet where Trouble Will Find Me finds genuine levelling up it's Berninger's lyricism, which was already great but is becoming increasingly more vivid and quite often dryly funny amidst all the adulthood angst. It's maybe unfair to credit it all to Berninger as by this stage he'd become a genuine lyric writing duo with his wife Carin Besser and it's likely that the increasing prevalence of that teamwork is the true source, but regardless it's one of my favourite parts of the album. No wonder it's the first National album that came with the lyrics in the liner notes)

But so, it's basically The National playing The National and... that's fine, because the songs are still great and everyone's still on peak form. It's just not bringing anything necessarily new to the table (besides the thirteen unique new songs obviously) and as an album it's perhaps consistent to a fault. Closest it comes to a real flaw is that the three quietest songs ("Heavenfaced", "Fireproof" and "Slipped") sound like they're running laps around the very same track and with 13 songs maybe one or two of them weren't quite as necessary to include - my pick to keep would be "Heavenfaced" thanks to the finale where it takes flight, though the sensible shuffle of "Fireproof" is nice too. But similarly, despite the overall consistently strong material it's missing the real big hitters and the era-defining classics. The songs I mentioned before? All worthy album highlights but I'm not sure I'd be able to find a slot for any of them in my all-time National favourite songs unless we started going past a top 25 or so - "Pink Rabbits" at a stretch maybe. If that sounds like a minute thing to point out, it is. It's my brain wanting to rationalise and verbalise why this isn't as excellent as the previous albums, not including the personal context which this album doesn't have to the same extent as the previous ones; but the quality is still running pretty high.

In summary, the "big" issue here is that Trouble Will Find Me is... not life-changing or revelatory and doesn't advance the story? Which are some lofty expectations for an album and you can't really beat it down about it. With all the usual elements still showing up sharp throughout the album, on its own merits it stands tall as a set of good-to-great songs demonstrating - at the very least - the band's continuing growth as a unit and honing into the instincts that they picked up via High Violet. You could even argue that it's the most accurate representation of what The National are like as a musical group in their very core, without any bells, whistles or experiments getting in the way. The fact that this album is them operating at their instinctual basic level and it's this good says it all about how consistently brilliant they've become as a group. While going through this review in my head I had been thinking a lot about how Trouble Will Find Me lacks a certain unique je ne sais quoi identity of its own and how it doesn't show anything that any National fan wouldn't have seen before and how much that impacts my enjoyment of it, and turns out that in the end I realised it has very little effect as I got distracted time and time again from writing this review by the album sweeping me into its waves - great songs are great songs.

Physically: Tri-gatefold packaging once again, and as mentioned in the body of the review we get the full set of lyrics for the first time in The National's history - each lyric is also paired with a unique painting/art piece, which makes the booklet wonderfully thick.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2017 9 "Walk It Back", "Guilty Party", "Dark Side of the Gym"

1) Nobody Else Will Be There; 2) Day I Die; 3) Walk It Back; 4) The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness; 5) Born to Beg; 6) Turtleneck; 7) Empire Line; 8) I'll Still Destroy You; 9) Guilty Party; 10) Carin at the Liquor Store; 11) Dark Side of the Gym; 12) Sleep Well Beast

The electronic elements enter the field and bring back the once-significant atmosphere, and just look at the results.

If you cast your memory all the way back to Alligator and Boxer, one of The National's trademarks at the time was the layers of atmosphere around their music. Both of those albums are coated in transportative tones and moods, the kind that conjures specific locations or associations to appear in one's mind when the music comes alive: both albums captured a very particular (if abstract) late night feeling of being an emotionally charged person in a giant urban metropolis full of such people, whether that was the fairytale New York City that Berninger directly depicted in his lyrics or - from a more personal perspective - the big city I had moved into shortly after when those albums came into my life. The following albums intentionally toned that aspect down, with both High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me having been designed from the get-go to be more open in sound and, if you will, extroverted.

Rather than a soaring anthem, Sleep Well Beast opens with a tense and tired piano ballad. The calm and collected "Nobody Else Will Be There" is the first indication that The National have pivoted back towards the approach those formative albums had - and then some. Sleep Well Beast a vibe album through and through, and so much so that it's the most striking aspect of the album, the element that stays with you once the album has finished. It's a dark and textural record where you can practically sense the tendrils that are wrapped around its songs, shading away the light and pushing the songs towards deeper waters. Berninger is back to using his lower range and mumbling rather than shouting out choruses and the music slowly lurks and builds with many of the songs exceeding the five-six minute marker, often forming hypnotic loops of sound that are built upon piece by piece and then suddenly dismantled. The darkness of Sleep Well Beast is not the grim and depressing kind, but closer to the center of the forest in the middle of the night, quiet but somehow disconcerting; and if anything, the album often comes across somehow soothing, even if the logical part of your brain is trying to argue against it given the lyrics are far from content and happy. The cover image is the perfect illustration for the record, with a small glimpse of the band standing in a singular spot of light in what is otherwise overwhelming blackness. It's music that's characterised by its mood and even during its most dramatic turns it sounds close to being detached from it all, and there's something particularly compelling in those shadows.

The weight of that atmosphere comes from some new tricks employed by the band. Sleep Well Beast doubles up as The National's rock-band-goes-electronic period, though the programmed elements are used to enhance and elaborate on what's there rather than replace. So, there's no synthesized beats (beyond a few stray drum machines ticking behind Devendorf's drum kit), piercing keyboard riffs in lieu of guitars imposing on the songs or any other of the usual things that come with this territory. The National's foray into these ideas is subtler: there's a near-constant presence of skittering textures or electronic hum behind the core band, with filters and triggered samples blurring the line between the man and the machine without ever overpowering the band. The looped nature of the music I mentioned? Much of that impression comes from the gentle, repeating background stutters on top of which the rest of the song is then built. It makes the album's soundscape very dense: if e.g. on Boxer they embraced the space between the different elements, here those gaps have been filled with swaying stereo sounds, where even if the music sounds like it's ready to sink into the night there's something constantly running in its mind keeping it awake. There's always something lurking right behind your ear and it scores the double goal of not just adding something new into the band's overall sound, but it has an immense impact on the identity of this particular record, those unfamiliar sounds creating large parts of the album's hypnotic midnight haze. It's a headphones album through and through, with those small but significant details revealing their full extent when listened to closely. Even "Nobody Else Will Be There", which at first sounds so minimal, is full of patterns lurking beneath and flicking around, building tension where it might not otherwise exist. It's a haunting introduction to the record and I couldn't think of a better way to slowly reveal the album to the listener.

It's wonderful. It's an album not just to sink into but to find yourself lost in - Sleep Well Beast has become one in my short list of albums where I genuinely cannot put it down once it's somehow weaseled its way into my life, often starting up a week's (or more) worth of heavy binging where all I want to do is dip back into it. While it is the hypnotic sound world and the general gripping mood of the songs that bears much of its power, it wouldn't be the same if the album wasn't constructed so flawlessly. The National know how to make a great album and a track list that flows well with carefully thought out spots for each song in the record's overall dramatic arc - that's established - and Sleep Well Beast goes over and above it. The flow is immaculate in itself but the title track at the end really underlines the cohesiveness of the experience, lifting off the drum machine from "I'll Still Destroy You" and directly calling back to the lyrics of the same song, "Nobody Else Will Be There" and "Dark Side of the Gym" to create a real chapter closure of an ending song, bringing the album literally together. It's a weird song, the furthest the band go in their sound experiments as Berninger mumbles through chaotic layers of samples and loops where the structural building blocks blend into one another; but once it clicks just what it's doing, it changes from bewildering to essential. I love it when this sort of back-referencing happens in a place where you absolutely would not expect it; and when you run through the album again afterwards, you pick up just how well the rest of the puzzle pieces fit together.

It's generally a great pile of songs. I may have painted a somewhat one-shaded picture of the album's offerings but the truth is there's actually quite a bit of diversity going on it. "Day I Die" is another grand addition to the band's growing list of fist-raising rock anthems (with a name like that!), "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" is like a precision-engineered hit single despite its wordy title (it even comes with a straightforwardly ripping guitar solo), "Turtleneck" is a thrashing bundle of guttural growls and dirty guitars that spawns from the album's deepest pits, and in-between them is a mix of bittersweetly tranquil ballads, piercing and dynamic shots of melancholia and the album's characteristic electronically tinged loops. The latter are just as compelling as the more straightforward songs: "Walk It Back" is where the album's trance-like veil of atmosphere first comes to full bloom in what is one of the band's most arresting slow-burn giants, with a haunting spoken word bridge to boot, and the bubbling synth ascent of "Empire Line" teases with what sounds like an obvious build to a big explosive finale and instead the song repeatedly pulls the rug from underneath you, quieting down and stripping itself bare in its chorus that brings a bigger emotional punch than the conventional way would have. The well-thought out flow keeps them together, even the impromptu rowdiness of "Turtleneck": they come in when they're best fit to steal the spotlight and both support their adjacent songs while drawing strength from them.

Then you've got "Guilty Party" and "Dark Side of the Gym", which are straight-up among the band's best songs in all their devastating beauty. The former is another song built around a central loop but this time the band build one of their most vulnerable and emotionally exhausted compositions around it and it's mercilessly gorgeous where each appearing detail (the sighing guitar lines, Devendorf's drum fills breaking the loop, the horns) makes it sounds all the more wistful. "Dark Side of the Gym" is on the other hand sweet and tender, a stalker song which genuinely sounds like an earnest declaration of love you'd play as the last slow dance of the ball, with only the haunting bursts of static breaking the facade of its soft synthesizer twinkles and its gentle tipsy sway. Both are phenomenal songs and if the album as a whole is something I get stuck in, it's these parts that I might just repeat on their own. Sleep Well Beast overall feels like a series of capital-M Moments which in other tracklists would be a climactic moment that the flow points towards, here they've just been offered in a queue one after another; and besides the two already mentioned, the likes of "Walk It Back", "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" and "Empire Line" in particular feel like true events for this band.

It's a lot of hyperbole to lay on Sleep Well Beast but it's deserving of all of it. In my review for Trouble Will Find Me I was inclined to blurt out that great as that album's offerings were, they felt "lesser" enough compared to my usual high expectations that I wouldn't necessarily find a way to slot any of them into a hypothetical best of list. Sleep Well Beast is, well, a wholly different kind of beast: it's a stellar, creatively buzzing album that comfortably lines up next to all the other classics The National have made. If Trouble Will Find Me found The National caught in a moment where they weren't too bothered about pushing themselves further creatively and that was perhaps to explain why they weren't necessarily at their gold star level there, then Sleep Well Beast proves the point as its strive towards new territories and the band thinking on their toes has once more resulted in a record with a far greater sense of importance and identity. Maybe to prove the point even further is that if there's a minor slip in this album, it's the delicate "Born to Beg" - which isn't all that far away from the more placid moments of the previous albums which were likewise its weak link (relatively speaking).

Sleep Well Beast would ultimately also signpost towards the future. The soft use of electronic elements and synthesizer textures would not only become a mainstay for the band themselves, but Aaron Dessner in particular would build an entire side career out of those blocks as a producer and collaborator - to the point that in the present day of 2023 it's starting to feel too safe as an environment. But on Sleep Well Beast those elements still surprise and thrill even once the novelty has worn off, as they turn the band's now-established trademark tones askew and create something new out of the familiar topics. Its hypnotic and haunting presence doesn't let go or grow fainter either despite repeat dips into it. Great as the albums before were, a part of me missed the levels of atmospheric touch the band could hold, and here it comes in droves and is presented in an outstandingly captivating manner.

Physically: Another tri-gatefold package. Another thick booklet with all the lyrics presented spaciously, with various studio photos in between. The interesting thing is that in a complete contrast to the cover, the inner art and design are garishly bright, full of pure white and washed-out colour - like it's from a wholly different world.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2018 8 "Squalor Victoria", "Slow Show"

1) Fake Empire; 2) Mistaken for Strangers; 3) Brainy; 4) Squalor Victoria; 5) Green Gloves; 6) Slow Show; 7) Apartment Story; 8) Start a War; 9) Guest Room; 10) Racing Like a Pro; 11) Ada; 12) Gospel

It's Boxer again, now live and ten years later. And that's all there is to it, really.

A great band playing great versions of great songs. There, review sorted, job's done.

The National have a cavalcade of albums that could warrant the anniversary treatment of playing the record back to finish in front of a live audience, but it makes sense that it's Boxer which not only had the festivities but also ended up being released as the band's first proper live album (compared to, say, the vinyl release of the same song being played for six hours in a row or the cassette box set of performances recorded in authentic bootleg quality i.e. garbage). Even around the album's original release the band were already playing radically different versions of some of its songs which have become as canonical as their album versions; even the ones that the band continue to play faithfully have a different feel to them simply by the virtue of these subtle and hushed songs now being performed in a more dynamic live setting. Thus, Live in Brussels gives the chance for every fan to easily add the alternative versions of "Slow Show" (with its more anthemic lift-offs and an epic closure), "Squalor Victoria" (extended jam outro with Matt screaming his lungs out) and "Brainy" (longer and more dynamic outro) into their music libraries - and the rest of these beloved fan favourites and deep cuts being performed is a bonus on top of that, really. It's still recognisably and familiarly Boxer through and through, and if you're well acquainted with how its heart beats, it's all replicated here with reverence and not too much experimentation. But it is a livelier (pun intended) and overall a little more explosive version of the original twelve songs and with Boxer specifically, that makes a small but tangible difference at parts.

There's little in the way of distractions: the sound quality is unusually crispy and pristine for a live album, the presence of the audience is silenced during most of the songs bar a stray handclap here and there (though some might find this an automatic blessing) and the stage banter is kept minimal. The first time Berninger opens his mouth to speak rather than sing is after "Slow Show" and while he does get a little more chatty afterwards (we've all been there with "racing like a pronoun"), they're short quips and barely-thought out anecdotes, where before "Gospel" he even outright states the song has a story behind it but that he's not going to share it. The audience is here for Boxer and while the atmosphere is cosily friendly throughout (in fact, an album this melancholy and personal has never sounded so casual and good-spirited), the band respect the theme of the evening by playing the album through like professionals. The performances are great throughout and even beyond the obvious highlights like "Squalor Victoria" (where the live version really is the best version of this song, and I say this as someone who's given the original album a perfect score) there's a lot of stand-outs parts, especially "Mistaken for Strangers" which sounds more urgent than ever, "Apartment Story" which is downright joyous and "Start a War" makes a more convincing point than the studio version about why it was originally selected as the album's opener before "Fake Empire" happened. But it's... The National playing Boxer from start to finish and if you expect anything more than that, or anything that would reveal something brand new about the album, you're going to finish the album with disappointment in your mind. On the other hand if you love the original and you're a big enough fan of the band to want to listen to a live album of theirs, you're basically getting exactly what it says on the label and that's just obviously a good recipe.

As said: it's a great band running through great versions of great songs. I typically tend to want to hear something different with live albums but you can't complain about what's being offered here, really.

Physically: A thin gatefold package without a booklet, with just the credits and recording information listed in the centrefold. I get that there's a limited amount of things you can include in the liner notes for live albums, but this still feels very skeletal.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2019 10 "Oblivions", "Not in Kansas", Rylan"

1) You Had Your Soul with You; 2) Quiet Light; 3) Roman Holiday; 4) Oblivions; 5) The Pull of You; 6) Hey Rosey; 7) I Am Easy to Find; 8) Her Father in the Pool; 9) Where Is Her Head; 10) Not in Kansas; 11) So Far So Fast; 12) Dust Swirls in Strange Light; 13) Hairpin Turns; 14) Rylan; 15) Underwater; 16) Light Years

Pinning down onto their most graceful and delicate ideas with the help of their friends, The National create a pseudo-cinematic journey of an album.

The first album by The National I bought new on release day was High Violet, in 2010. I was riding high on my relatively recently found obsession with the band and the album came out at a time when I needed to hear something like it; per the review above, it’s now firmly canonised itself as one of my favourite albums of all time. During the tour following the album’s release, the band occasionally road tested new songs they had written following the creative flow in the album’s wake. One of these was a song called “Rylan”, a slow burner with an infectious melody that shortly became a fan favourite - including mine. “Rylan” also became a bit of a ghost afterwards, wheeled out in random concerts every once in a while across the years, showing small changes every time it made an appearance, but never seeing a studio release. The more elusive it became, the more its status as a secret gem only grew.

I love coincidences that make it look like the puzzle pieces of the universe are clicking into place, and so as "Rylan" was debuted at the start of the decade, it makes some kind of cosmic sense that it finally became something tangible at the very end of that same decade. Its sudden appearance at the tail end of the I Am Easy to Find tracklist was like seeing a now-distant friend you thought you might never see again, and its appearance ten years on from its debut only serves to highlight the changes the band have gone through in that time between. From grassroots stalwarts to the A-tier indie heroes, The National have been slowly evolving and changing their sound throughout their career and, even across the 2010s where they effectively codified their signature sound, they've transformed significantly. You can make a direct and easy comparison with "Rylan" alone - from the live videos of its early appearances (some professionally recorded) to the studio version in 2019, it's clearly the same song but so massively different in approach - and much of those changes around it are all over I Am Easy to Find in general.

We can probably credit the resurgence of "Rylan" to the same person who we can largely thank for I Am Easy to Find in general. Director Mike Mills, a close friend of the band, was planning an experimental short film and he tentatively approached The National to soundtrack it. What he gained was an open access to a Dropbox account of sketches, demos, samples and clips going back years - scattered ideas the band had worked on but which hadn't found their shape yet. The final film (a genuinely touching short piece starring Alicia Vikander) and the album share their name but aren't rigidly connected: the album isn't the soundtrack to the film even if segments of its music are used throughout, but they both exist in a symbiotic relationship. Mills would pick demos he liked, the band would work on those songs further and independently as they got excited about making a record album, and both parties ended up inspiring one another. There's only a few direct links to the film: the titles of the interlude segues that give the album a cinematic feel of its own are inspired by the poem that acts as the film's narration, and the otherwise non sequitur like lyrics of "Where Is Her Head" are the only set of words directly requested for the film (where they're a part of an in-universe children's book). Otherwise the two works are entirely separate and the short film isn't mandatory to enjoy I Am Easy to Find as an album, but it's still recommended because of the thematic beats the two ultimately independent works share (and just because the film's quite captivating). And if that's not an option, the short narration script is printed out in the liner notes.

I Am Easy to Find is an album about collaborations through to its very core. Matt Berninger's signature vocals so frequently share space with a multitude of guest vocalists (from Gail Ann Dorsey to Sharon Van Etten and many others) that he simply becomes one voice among others,and the Brooklyn Youth Choir get the sole spotlight in a number of interludes that segue the album's different sections together. The sonic palette of the band is expanded through session musicians and friends helping out with the arrangements, even further so than on the prior albums that were rich in production in their own right, as frequent orchestral sections make parts of the record sound like the cinematic soundtrack it is and isn't at the same time. Sometimes it's practically The National in name only, and the overall nature of the record sometimes resembles one of the many collaborative projects and compilations that the Dessner brothers have curated in the past. But it's The National themselves who anchor its multitude of concepts, voices and ideas into a coherent whole, and their own signature elements are still present as always: Berninger may have stepped back but his narration is the red line around everyone else, the Dessners' careful and delicate arrangements lead the songs and Bryan Devendorff's drumming is as propulsive and unique as ever, and the electronic textural elements first introduced on Sleep Well Beast appear once again and establish themselves as an essential element of the band's sound at this point. Together with the unified production aesthetic - hazy, dreamy, vulnerable - the band bring all the ideas and personalities together to form a cohesive, singular journey.

It's a beautiful journey, as well. I Am Easy to Find is the most graceful record The National have made, full of delicate songs that swivel lightly in the air. Even the sad piano ballads (the title track and "Light Years", both almost devastatingly haunting and gorgeous) are gentle like walking on water rather than drowning in sorrow and melancholy, and the closest the album gets to loud and noisy are the psychedelic hullabaloo of "Where Is Her Head" and the opening "You Had Your Soul With You", neither of which invite Berninger to scream his lungs out - and "You Had Your Soul With You" even changes tract partway through as it introduces the strings and Gail Ann Dorsey's vocals, which mark the point where the album shows its true colours after the brisk intro. On other albums they might have been heavier songs (emotionally or in sheer sound), here they share the same soundspace as the pristine and careful moments of nearly meditative elegiac beauty that most of the album spends its time in; with only the anguished lashing out in the choruses of "The Pull of You" breaking the thunder. Even when the lyrics swing to the melancholy - and it's The National so that's the main modus operandi still - there's a pinch of hope within them, the songs leaving you with the impression that maybe everything can be fixed rather than the narrators losing themselves and their loved ones to their personal demons, with a heavier emphasis on trust between both sides (which the guest vocals intentionally or inadvertently emphaise). Those themes and main sonical reference points of the album takes many forms: the spacious and swirling "Oblivions" which almost feels like the film's and the era's main theme due to its prominence, the light-footed hook machine "Quiet Light" that's impossible not to get lost within, the torchlight anthem "Hey Rosey" and the dream-like and hypnotic slow dance "Hairpin Turns" among the best. They're all equally gorgeous and strong, and it's odd to think that all these songs started out as random seeds and stems, because they form such a cohesive whole where each idea presented supports the next.

That whole meditative experience comes to its peak as the album passes the halfway point, with its two extended centrepieces. "Not in Kansas" is the one song on the album where Berninger takes unchallenged center space as he mutters a stream-consciousness litany about his hometown, listening to R.E.M., being nervous about punching nazis, Christianity and everything else under the sun, like someone who's returned to somewhere he left a long time ago and whose mind is racing with everything that changed across the years - set largely to a sparse guitar and kickdrum beat that's miles away from the rich production surrounding it. And then the song literally broken apart by a hymn, a choir reciting a Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 lyric like it was a religious scripture sung at the end of a funeral. It's unlike anything else in The National's catalogue and it's nearly dream-like in its presentation, from the lyrics that wander around from distant point to another to the sudden structural breaks, hypnotically looping for nearly seven minutes (according to Berninger he removed several verses from the final version - and I could easily listen to those as well, maybe he'd finish Life's Rich Pageant by the end). "So Far So Fast" is the flipside of the coin: all driven by the voices other than Berninger, swept by a detailed, vivid arrangement that flickers with heavenly abandon through the headphones. It's a comfort blanket of a song while still coming across so fragile it might break at the lightest touch, like the sight of the light shining through your familiar home windows breaking through the night but with the uncertainty of not having visited for years. It's completely lucid in contrast to the fever dream of "Not in Kansas" and that's what makes the two songs perfect counterparts - the rambling chaos and the oasis to recover.

And then there's "Rylan". I love "Rylan" and the way it's been realised here, in what could be considered its final form now, is sublime. The driving snare-heavy that beat pounds away with fire under its feet and the lyrics and vocal melodies full of tiny little hooks are both familiar from the prior versions of the song but they've been tweaked and lifted up, sounding more vivid than ever. Kate Stables of This Is the Kit now sings the second verse, and the sudden change of tone from Berninger's murmur to her lighter voice flicks the mood and weight of the verse completely from the first, before the song builds back up again to its grand finale. The orchestral breakdown is majestic, and the towering conclusion it builds up to has been redefined into a capital-M Moment. "Rylan" is an incredible song and by and far the album's centrepiece, and it's been recontextualised so perfectly you could never tell it started its life so long ago. It's no longer just a homeless song that transcends eras, it's now the anchor of I Am Easy to Find specifically - the giddy, vibrant rush to the finale after the heavier waters that started the second half of the album, serving an important role in the record's flow. It's the homecoming welcome for the final stretch of songs loom in the horizon; and out of the album's context, it's the fulfilled wishes of a decade ago coming to a beautiful reality.

It's obvious now I place a lot of weighty personal importance for these songs, and I make a lot of references to peace, comfort, serenity, et cetera above very intentionally. It's what I Am Easy to Find has come to represent to me. A lot of the records by The National end up tying themselves into the particular timeframes of my life around their release, and I Am Easy to Find's release window in the late spring of 2019 was also when I was recovering from what was supposed to have been a simple surgery with a quick few week recovery time, but which turned out to be a three-four-month ordeal through most of which I could barely move, popping painkillers and watching the summer go by from the flat I was bound to (good prep for the 2020 isolation party). I Am Easy to Find became something of a consolation: a peaceful musical space I found myself retreating to over and over again during those months, escaping within the rich arrangements and finding comfort and a way to process what I was feeling there.

So I Am Easy to Find became special - it developed a meaning outside what was intended, but which it attained through its own strengths. It's the most beautiful set of songs that The National have released, and possibly their most immersive album - a record with interludes, segues and running themes where all those actually feel necessary, and not fluff to make a record look fancier than it is. It absolutely gains much of its power for me for reasons outside its music, but I don't think it would have imprinted itself on me so heavily without its inherent strengths - after all none of the albums I bingebought during that period (when you have nothing to do but stay inside and listen to music...) have latched onto me to this extent. I Am Easy to Find is a rich and complex album, full of intricacies and concepts that tie together into a cohesive, unified story told through music alone - and its songs are just plain great. It's almost unfair to other artists how The National can seemingly just coast along effortlessly from album to album with a consistently incredible quality of songwriting, to the extent that even their random Dropbox demos ended up making a collection of songs so strong others would kill for. But that's just how it is - it's another incredible album from a band who churn them out almost predictably by now, and a personal masterpiece because even now playing it is akin to opening a door to a pocket universe where things are OK no matter how ablaze the world outside is.

Physically: Another tri-fold gatefold. The lyrics poster features both, well, the lyrics but also - as mentioned - the "script" of the film (the series of captions used throughout the non-dialogue movie).



Years active: Genres:
2015 - 2016 Indie Rock

A brief (one-off?) collaboration between Berninger and Menomena's Brent Knopf. Besides the one album they also released a song called "Are These My Jets?" on the anti-Donald Trump compilation 40 Days, 40 Nights - it's a great song, too.


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2015 8 "Return to the Moon", "I'm the Man to Be", "Sleepin' Light"

1) Return to the Moon (Political Song for Didi Bloome to Sing, with Crescendo); 2) I'm the Man to Be; 3) Paul Is Alive; 4) Need a Friend; 5) Silent Ivy Hotel; 6) No Time to Crank the Sun; 7) It's a Game; 8) Sleepin' Light (feat. Ural Thomas); 9) Sad Case; 10) Happiness, Missouri; 11) Careless

Irreverent fun and slinky crooves - and some great songs - which really shine a new light on Berninger's presence.

The bit that captures the signature energy and ethos of Return to the Moon - and EL VY in general - occurs during the brief bridge passage in "I'm the Man to Be", where the casually awkward interaction between Matt Berninger recording his vocals in a hotel room and the keen housekeeper barging in has been caught on tape and lackadaisically sampled. It's an off-guard, throw-it-in moment which symbolises the slightly irreverent, erratically relaxed and off-kilter mood of the record pretty much perfectly. That is, if the song's dirty indie-Chili Peppers funk and the chorus of "I'm peaceful 'cause my dick's in sunlight, held up by kites" hadn't already given a clue about this being quite afar from Matt Berninger's day job with The National.

EL VY isn't just Berninger, it's also Menomena's Brent Knopf who's responsible for the majority of the instruments and the production on the record and whose free-wheeling grooves are just as integral to the album as the antics of its vocal frontman are. But, especially coming from a National fan's background, it's the change from the usual with Berninger's attitude that jumps out with EL VY. While he's always carried a dry sense of (sometimes absurdist) humour with him, The National are by and large an emotionally sullen bunch and Berninger is the sad dad of indie rock in the band's front and center. EL VY finds that same melancholy frontman off on a tropical vacation, hanging out in corny lounge bars full of silly miniature umbrellas sticking out from drinks in carved out fruits. He's overtly ridiculous and over-the-top here, strutting rather than sulking and having a lot of fun fulfilling rock and roll fantasies that would look weird in the context of his usual line of music. The arrangements go hand-in-hand with those antics: the music is bouncy and quirky, with Knopf crafting lightfooted and hook-heavy firecrackers with rollercoaster breakdowns and parts where Berninger can strut around to his heart's content. EL VY doesn't really have a strict, identifiable sound as the album balances between more traditional indie stylistics, art-rock grooves, atmospheric night-time cruising and bursts of ramshackle noise throughout its length. What ties it together instead is the attitude its creators have because the material is so abundant with it. Knopf and Berninger are long-time friends and a shared music project was something the two had planned for years until finally making it into reality in bits and pieces, and the album really does sound like the kind of freewheling fun that two best friends would come up with when surrounded by a bunch of instruments. Look at Berninger's beach bum hair in all the photoshoots of this era - he's literally letting his hair down.

A lot of the album is built around swagger and groove, with the rhythm section leading the songs forward with an almost melodic presence: the skeletal guitars and the on-and-off keyboards across the album are there to fill the gaps and to accentuate the drums and bass which share the main spotlight and the emphasis in the mix. It never gets repetetive and that's because of the variety already mentioned. On surface level there's nothing tying together the the drunken funk of "I'm the Man to Be", the soulful sway of "Sleepin' Light" and the creepy-crawling churn of "Sad Case" which transform into the segued-into "Happiness, Missouri" (really two halves of the same song) and its eccentric rock and roll stop-and-starts - not to mention the irresistible indie disco of the title track which practically floats on top of its snappy drums and bounce-around bass, eventually climbing into a heavenly key-change double-whammy chorus. Even the production seems to shift from song to song, from the crispness of the title track to the goofy Halloween sway of "Silent Ivy Hotel". But the approach always remains the same, the album locking into those jam-esque instrumental movements but doing it from different angles and edited to keep things snappy, leading to constantly refreshed takes that are honestly really quite exciting. Berninger's stream-of-consciousness rambling is the cherry on top: his surrealism is in full bloom and downright uninhibited across the board, leading to a delirious set of vocals that makes the album's constantly moving energy even livelier.

That whimsical - or indeed irreverent, as already expresed - tone is the first thing that comes to mind with Return to the Moon, but it serves to mention that it's a very well-written album too and its secret weapon is just how sharp its songwriting can be: it wouldn't be as charming as it is if it didn't have a solidly thought-out core inside its weird pop songs. The songs all strive for immediacy, laying out their big ideas as quick as they can and always building up to an industry-strength chorus hook - and because the album leaves so much space between its instruments, even the smallest details in the writing and arrangements pop out. It's most apparent in the moments with less bluster and bravado, where the strength of the melodycraft really comes to surface when there aren't all the other big moves distracting from it. Those are the bluntly autobiographical "Paul Is Alive" which wanders in a quiet dreamy flutter, "Careless" which is what the last song of the ball sounds like from EL VY's perspective with their signature rhythmic thrust chugging underneath, and "No Time to Crank the Sun" and "It's a Game" which are the closest the album comes to align with Berninger's main band (the drums on "It's a Game" in particular feel almost Devendorfian), with the former in particular reaching a kind of yearning vulnerability with its textural vocal harmonies layered over that the rest of the album has no time for. "Sleepin' Light" too, which finds the perfect balance between the album's both sides and offers its most lushly melodic writing, spiralling into a wonderful extended finale with Berninger and Ural Thomas' contrasting voices laying harmonies over one another. They're mostly hanging around together in the center of the album, giving its madcap joy a soft center. The other songs aren't devoid of the same strengths either - "Return to the Moon" is the album's strongest song and that's precisely because how its rhythm section downright sings with such lushness - but the centre of the album is the big reminder that attention has been given to its detail even if at first it all comes across like a bit of a drunken hullabaloo.

It's obvious that EL VY is a clear side project for both of its leading men given its overall informal tone and its ad-hoc, one-off nature - but they both have also given their full focus towards the material they've chosen to release this way and that's what makes Return to the Moon such a worthwhile detour to investigate. It's often ridiculous and constantly makes me smile and giggle, but it's such a strong set of songs that in terms of side projects, it's close to essential listening. If you're a National fan in particular, you have the added bonus of getting the chance to experience Berninger throwing himself into a wholly different approach and it highlights his strength as a frontman in ways that haven't always been apparent: if you're familiar with the various music videos and miscellaneous side content of The National's where the band's sense of humour and ability to laugh at themselves has surfaced, Return to the Moon is the grand debut of that Berninger in full-album length. It's a lot of great fun and though it throws itself into the fray with such a casual flair that it's hard to think of it as anything more than a moment's folly, it's got some incredible longevity: I'd still place this as one 2015's clear highlights. Side projects often just end up thought of as off-shoot discography entries of more famous acts - including on this very page - but this is one of those cases where that practice undersells just how strong this is as its own thing.

Physically: A simple gatefold with no booklet, just the credits and an additional photo in the centrefold. The CD itself is in a cardboard jacket with bright colourful designs to contrast with the rest of the artwork's monochromatic vibe.


Years active: Genres:
2019 - Singer/Songwriter(?)

Berninger's private solo project while the band was taking a break (and, uh, the world was going through a global pandemic).


Release year: Rating: Key tracks:
2020 6 "Distant Axis", "One More Second", "Serpentine Prison"

1) My Eyes Are T-Shirts; 2) Distant Axis; 3) One More Second; 4) Loved So Little; 5) Silver Springs (feat. Gail Ann Dorsey); 6) Oh Dearie; 7) Take Me Out of Town; 8) Collar of Your Shirt; 9) All for Nothing; 10) Serpentine Prison

Berninger and collaborators having a cosy little time playing songs together, like a vintage singer's variety record.

Serpentine Prison started out as Berninger wanting do a covers album, specifically citing Willie Nelson's Stardust (a childhood favourite of his) as the direct inspiration - right down to the point of recruiting Stardust's producer Booker T. Jones to guide the sessions and to produce the album. When the sessions began the idea of all covers quickly moved to the backburner (though some were recorded and they ended up as the bonus tracks on the digital deluxe edition): instead Berninger invited musician friends from across his life and career to cowrite and record brand new material with him, leading up to a two-week binge session in Venice where people kept coming and going to the studio to contribute whatever they wanted to in relatively free-form fashion. The guest list for the album is fairly long (among others there's The National bandmate Scott Devendorf and their touring musicians Ben Lanz and Kyle Resnick, EL VY co-conspirator Brent Knopf, Andrew Bird, Gail Ann Dorsey, Jones' Stardust session mate Mickey Raphael, and many more) and beyond just a list of credits, everyone involved has been captured in sketch drawings across the album's artwork - just to make it more visible how integral all these people were to the creation of the record.

Berninger himself described the recording sessions as a casual get-together of friends simply playing for the enjoyment of it all rather than everyone pushing themselves to the limit to create something impactful (something The National had been doing for years now with each album cycle), and that's an accurate measure of what Serpentine Prison sounds like too. It's knowingly and appreciatively low stakes, with the audible warmth of having been recorded in good company with no worries over it. Solo records of band frontpeople always come with an extra set of expectations (irrespective if it is them who actually write the bulk of the music) and Berninger's response to that pressure has been to avoid that stress altogether: he simply wanted to put together a set of songs he wanted to sing, nothing more and no strings attached. There's a vague kind of a throwback feel to the album which stems from its primary inspiration, and that association is further enhanced by Berninger moving away from The National's contemporary sound throughout the album. Only "Distant Axis" sounds like Berninger is in touch with his own era of music, though that owes a lot to how close the intro comes to remind of The Decemberists' "The Crane Wife 3", though it does distinguish itself by how it refuses to break into the kind of bombast you'd expect it to build up to, remaining in its daydream haze throughout its length. There isn't a specific time period that Serpentine Prison ever latches onto - the Gail Ann Dorsey duet "Silver Springs" could have had a home in any 50s-60s crooner record, the pleading "One More Second" has a chorus that any 80s power ballad act would be jealous of and the melancholy lounge of "Serpentine Prison" has a bit of 90s singer/songwriter in its DNA - but there's just the notion of it being something more vintage, an album from a different era that you stumble onto while crate-digging. There's a lot of jokes around about The National being the sad dad band but out of anything in that combined universe of theirs, this is closest in tapping to that sophisticated dad market with its matured presence.

You can't really go wrong with the basic ingredients of Serpentine Prison: Berninger is on expected form both as a performer and lyricist and the collaborators and co-writers he's chosen for the record are all seasoned veterans for a good reason, and they bring their experience seamlessly into the world of Berninger's comforting melancholy. It's a cosily intimate record, perfect to play on a quiet evening when the day is winding down - a dinner party album for the discernable hipster, and I'm loading that expression with more positivity than you might expect because there's nothing wrong with an album that works great as a backing track to a moment. But that also obviously means that it's a record that has the habit of genuinely slipping into the background rather than actively courting for the listener's attention, and it only periodically stirs the pot and wakes up from its self-imposed wallpaper effect. "Distant Axis" unfolds wonderfully into its bittersweetly swooning walls of sound, "Serpentine Prison" is a straightforward shuffle but it's a nakedly beautiful song with some of the album's strongest melodies and its quiet wistfulness is a musical context that fits Berninger so perfectly, and "One More Second" is such a capital Big Song that it's nearly out of place in what is otherwise very restrained company. It really does sound like an award-snatching torchlight song that could have reached the top of the charts in another time period, and while it leans heavily into its ever-rising chorus it's such a powerful moment that I'm all for the song proudly repeating it over and over like a classic hit has the right to. They're all very different songs but they're where Serpentine Prison grabs the attention the strongest, courtesy of those big centrepiece choruses that they all wield. In a room full of tracks that often politely sit still, they stand up to applause.

As can be inferred the rest of the album is decidedly less flashy, with plenty of ballads and midnight lounge songs full of Jones' classy organ work, smooth acoustic guitars, plaintive horns and Berninger's gentle mumbling, with some bursts of different shades of colour here and there like with the anthemic growth of "All or Nothing" (co-written with Knopf so it's practically an EL VY song and maybe that's why a little more lively), but nothing too out of place. It's a difficult album to really criticise because it floats so gently and pleasantly across its succinct 40-minute length, but it's likewise a difficult album to dissect - it can be a little nondescript at places, with the middle of the album in particular blurring together a little too close and when that occurs it doesn't do it so offensively it'd actually stir a negative reaction either. It's all a good backdrop for Berninger but quite often it literally does become a backdrop altogether. How much the listener gets out of its ultimately depends on how much you like Berninger himself - beyond just the default level of interest that would lead you to track down a solo album of his if you like The National, I mean. This isn't showing any new sides to him (like EL VY did) nor does it even try to come close to the depth and intricacy of his band, but it is a set of nice songs fronted by a great performer who's having a good time in the studio with his friends and if you enjoy Berninger's voice and presence, it makes it worth revisiting from time to time. It doesn't get any deeper than that though.

Physically: A tri-fold gatefold with all the lyrics printed across the centerfold - and a sketch line-up in the middle of everyone involved, as already mentioned.

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