The National never set out to be famous.
Born and raised in Ohio, the five-piece formed in 1990’s Brooklyn while in their 20’s. Matt Berninger (vocals) and Scott Devendorf (bass) had met previously at the University of Cincinnati where they formed a band, while Scott’s sibling Bryan Devendorf (drums) had been making music with twin brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner (guitars).Two pairs of brothers and a wispy-haired blonde front man started gigging around town, and in 2005 on the strength of the release of their third project Alligator, they quit their day jobs. Like I said, they hadn’t planned on being famous.
If their songs bear a passing resemblance to other bands like The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol, it’s because they were a part of that particular New York indie rock scene coming up in the late 90’s and 2000’s. However, where those bands are rooted steadfastly in the garage rock sensibility, The National has a quieter and more restrained sound. They excel at blending quiet contemplation with expertly plotted cacophony.
The Dessners are the musical virtuosos, composing much of the material after which the Devendorfs create rhythm sections which keep the songs from overflowing into too much slow melancholy. Berninger is the lyricist, taking the Dessners’ compositions, and spinning out cloudy, fragmented tales of romantic grief, longing and existential angst.
His lyrics circumscribe a particular type of white male anguish that most critics, positive or not, never fail to notice. At their worst, The National’s songs dip into the overwrought and melodramatic. “Forget it/ Nothing I do changes anything” Berninger sings on “Walk it Back,” indulging in the kind of self pity that make some revile the band.
The specific alchemy of The National is that at their best they make what could be grating complaints of white male ennui into poignant snapshots of what it means to be alive—how it feels to be disappointed, what it means to give up on someone and be given up on. “Hearing your voice always saves me/ Can you get away and talk to me?” Berninger sings on “So Far So Fast,” outlining the dual comfort and reliance of a lover’s voice.
As their albums have progressed, they have gone from minutely plotted instrumental arrangements to looser overflowing compositions with more collaborators and intersecting voices. In “I Am Easy to Find,” their most recent album, the guitars still snag thoughtfully and the drums still fuel the songs with staccato beats, balancing on the dull edge of Berninger’s voice. But there are also female voices chiming in behind and sometimes even instead of Berninger, making an album that feels less like one of his monologues and more like an energetic conversation.
This conversation becomes more dynamic with the addition of Carin Besser, Berninger’s wife, who took a role in the lyric writing. Also involved was Mike Mills, a film director who reached out to the band and inspired them to go forward with “I Am Easy to Find” while also making a short film based on their album. After two decades The National still manages to find newness in their musical practice.
See The National at The Anthem on June 19th. Doors open at 6:30 pm.
Miranda Jetter writes about all manner of noise in DC. You can find her at @Mirandajetter on Twitter doing the Time Warp again.