Slow Show: The Evolution Of The National

A snapshot guide to their albums past...
The National

Everyone has their own moment: the time, personal to them and them alone, when The National connected. And if you’re yet to, it’s likely forthcoming. The New York-based outfit is one that, given the right exposure, can’t fail to get into the blood.

For this writer, infatuation – which this certainly edges on – didn’t come quickly. Chances were had. The band, then touring its first, eponymous album, crashed at my (then) London house, a place shared with two guys who worked (then) for Southern Records, distributors of Brassland, the label The National called home for its first two LPs.

My moment came years later: at Green Man Festival, 2008. The quintet was supporting its fourth album, ‘Boxer’, released the previous year to no little acclaim (and yet yours truly hadn’t really given it the time it deserved – others in my then-place-of-work, DrownedinSound.com, had though, and it ranked at 12 on the site’s albums of the year list).

Appearing on the main stage’s Sunday bill, sandwiched between Damien Jurado and Iron & Wine, and some slots above a then-emerging Laura Marling and the mud-splashing frivolity of Los Campesinos!, The National’s set was an eyes- and ears-opener like few others witnessed in a sodden field. Particularly outstanding was ‘Mistaken For Strangers’, the first single lifted from ‘Boxer’. Everything clicked. In the drizzle, a little boozy, something fizzed into existence. Something a little like love.

The National’s latest (sixth) album, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’, is out now. Reviews have been uniformly positive, even when reluctant to celebrate it as a true progression from the quiet majesty of its immediate predecessor, 2010’s ‘High Violet’. If it follows said set’s commercial performance, it should chart in the UK top 10 with ease – ‘High Violet’ peaked at five, and its makers have only grown in profile since.

But the band’s beginnings are so very far removed from what it is today. Now, the couplets of Matt Berninger read like tattoo-them-on-you instances of epiphany, his lovelorn vignettes manifesting like Russian dolls, layered with peel-away tiers of audience relevancy. Broad, precise, intimate or universal: read his words myriad ways and always there’s a new end to the journey. Even when addressing named females, his stories are less documents, more abstract meditations on the never-the-same sensation of tripping into relationships; and falling out the other side changed.

Forming in Cincinnati in 1999, The National’s debut set came out two years later via the aforementioned Brassland stable – a label the band’s own Aaron and Bryce Dessner had a significant hand in founding. As first efforts go it certainly didn’t alert the music press to a blossoming brilliance – but it did enough, with its 12 cuts of alt-country-hued indie-rock, to help grow the band’s early audience, and take them touring overseas.

Berninger’s baritone vocals are a constant across the band’s catalogue, his tone unmistakable, an immediate anchor whatever the outfit’s stylistic deviations. And his lyrics, too, have crossed records – there are lines in ‘29 Years’ (below) that’d be recycled come ‘Slow Show’, a mid-set standout of 2007’s Beggars Banquet-released ‘Boxer’.  

- - -

- - -

And if you’ve wondered where the band’s website URL comes from, look no further than their debut, where the track ‘American Mary’ sits at four of 12. Like much surrounding it, it’s a relatively drama-less exercise in gently twanging, barroom Americana, with the slightest hint of early Tom Waits about it (it’s the sort of track that makes a man conclude that there’s a copy of ‘Closing Time’ in this band’s collective record collection).

Self-produced, self-released, ‘The National’ would prove fine foundations for the group; but newcomers to the group today needn’t spend too much time exploring its roughly realised charms. Rather fuller of sound, embracing a slicker studio aesthetic, was The National’s second long-player, 2003’s ‘Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers’ – its title, perhaps, something of a catchall for their output ever since.

Berninger’s occasionally had a thing for inserting names in his band’s song titles – from ‘American Mary’ through to ‘Karen’ from 2005’s ‘Alligator’ – and on ‘Sad Songs…’ it’s ‘Murder Me Rachael’ that represents one of the set’s more driving pieces. It’s all tumble and tumult, a tightly controlled cacophony, where the band’s last LP had been a quieter affair.

So while it’s, again, hardly a must-have for recent admirers of this band, ‘Sad Songs…’ represents a change, significant evolution. It’s further fleshed out by the presence of Padma Newsome, and the Clogs multi-instrumentalist would feature on further National recordings, and perform live with them too.

The National’s next, third, album saw them make the leap to a bigger label: Beggars Banquet, and subsequently 4AD (within the same label group). If you’re looking for the breakthrough, this is it. Great reviews, great tours, great singles – everything had aligned for the band, and ‘Alligator’ really stands as the beginning of the current, on-going phase in this band’s career. The band bridged the gap between records with an EP, 2004’s ‘Cherry Tree’; but it didn’t truly signpost what would come next, a year later.

‘Alligator’’s greatest asset is perhaps its atmosphere – an easy, too-simple thing to write on ‘paper’, but an element that becomes undeniably essential when one sits down with this great album. Opener and second single ‘Secret Meeting’ immediately captures a strange unease that runs throughout this band’s best material: “I think this place is full of spies,” says Berninger; “I think they’re onto me.” Read it however you like – wherever it leads, it’s to further thought, to speculation. Who or what are the “lost sharks”? And that avenue of investigation only goes deeper, only becomes wider.

Production-wise, rough edges remain compared to The National’s more recent recordings. But this aspect, merged with some exemplary songwriting, renders ‘Alligator’ perhaps the band’s most wonderfully intimate record. In ‘Karen’ and ‘Looking For Astronauts’ you’ve got two incredible songs: tender but biting, graphic yet giving. These are lovebites, lasting of impression; songs that can’t not be carried with the listener, full of lines of life, of joy and sorrow and regrets and, beneath it all, no little optimism.

The album’s heart, though, must be ‘Daughters Of The SoHo Riots’. To this day, to these senses, it stands as one of The National’s most-perfect ‘little’ songs (if not the absolute zenith of their catalogue). Stripped-back, seemingly simple of poetic narrative, a little rough-and-tumble of recording: it’s a lump-in-throat quickener. It’s absolutely, devastatingly beautiful.

- - -

- - -

But, of course, it passed me by at the time. ‘Boxer’ changed that, via Green Man, via a frantic post-festival email to Beggars asking, begging, to be sent the two albums they’d put out to that point. ‘Boxer’ furthered the sounds found on ‘Alligator’, laying on gloss without obstructing the sensitive soul that’d really resonated on the previous collection. Its genesis was documented by director Vincent Moon, the resulting ‘A Skin, A Night’ film available alongside ‘The Virginia EP’, released in 2008.

But May 2007’s album is the go-to for said era of The National’s evolution, rather than the offcuts-feeling collection that is ‘The Virginia EP’ (good as it is, and as enlightening as some of the demos contained on it are). ‘Boxer’ saw The National debut on stateside TV, performing ‘Fake Empire’ on David Letterman (video below) and immediately infiltrating the hearts and minds of many more fans-to-be than they’d ever previously reached. 

Songs found their way to TV shows: ‘Slow Show’ on Gossip Girl, ‘Racing Like A Pro’ to One Tree Hill. Barack Obama, even, showed his support, after a fashion, reciprocating The National’s own ‘Mr November’ support for the US President by using ‘Fake Empire’ in a promotional campaign film. Year-end charts were dominated, ‘Boxer’ reaching across web and print publications alike. The National had, truly, arrived.

- - -

- - -

And their story since: one of increasing relevance, of greater commercial returns; but never at the expense of the music itself, which continues to be just as beautiful as it was when the band realised its own potential with ‘Alligator’ and ‘Boxer’.

‘High Violet’, 2010’s fifth set, saw the band working with the same producer, Peter Katis, who’d helped guide both ‘Alligator’ and ‘Boxer’ to completion – that’s his wedding The National are playing at on the cover of the latter album. Some writer or other (oh, hello), then penning for the BBC, named it “a potential album of the year”.

I like to think he was right – in so much as it had the potential to be the album of the year, even if it didn’t actually take the top spot in any major year-end countdown. It did, however, take home Q’s award for Best Album, and made its way into the 2011 edition of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. The National’s highest-charting album to date, ‘High Violet’ deserved all of its acclaim.

And ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ looks likely to follow suit. It’s been a long journey to the here and now, The National’s success so very far from overnight; but every step of the way has been an essential one. Find Clash’s review of the new album here, and listen to its lead single, ‘Demons’, below.

- - -

- - -

Find The National online here

Get the best of Clash on your iPhone - download the app here

Have your say

Sign in or Register to leave comments
-