The National turn 20 this year. Take a moment to reflect on that. Of all the indie rock bands to emerge from New York City at the turn of the millennium, only a few have aged as gracefully as the Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati quintet. Think about it: The Strokes, Interpol, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs are nearly two decades removed from their instant-classic debuts, and you can count on one hand the number of truly great albums they’ve released thereafter. The National have a strong (and arguably winning) challenger in Vampire Weekend, and another in LCD Soundsystem, which raises the question of whether or not New York’s best indie rock bands are even rock bands.
(Read: Did Vampire Weekend Win the Indie Rock Age?)
If The National sound like a rock band, it’s almost entirely thanks to the brothers Dessner (Aaron and Bryce, both guitarists) and Devendorf (Scott on the bass, Bryan on the drums), because frontman Matt Berninger doesn’t sing about what other rock bands sing about. While Julian Casablancas, Paul Banks, and Karen O spun vivid tales of debauchery after dark, Berninger sings about more relatable matters — failing relationships, unfulfilling office jobs, and crippling hangovers. You’re friends with the characters that inhabit these songs, if you’re not already one of them.
(Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Nationals Shows)
If that makes The National “boring” — an epithet that’s been lobbed at the band since the beginning — it’s also the secret to their longevity. Listening to Is This It, Turn on the Bright Lights, and Fever to Tell, it’s practically an upset that the guys who made The National went on to produce some of the most rewarding, affecting music of the 2000s. To celebrate the band’s 20 years, as well as the release of their newest work, I Am Easy to Find, we’ve revisited and ranked The National’s eight albums. (That means we’re leaving off a few of their finest songs: “Exile Vilify”, the Cherry Tree EP’s “About Today”, and their cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Morning Dew”.) If you’ve yet to take an uninnocent, elegant fall into the band’s discography, we’ve got you covered.
08. The National (2001)
Runtime: 43:51 (12 tracks)
“I Must Be Me, I’m in My Head” (Best Berninger-ism): “If I were a spy in the world inside your head/ Would I be your wife in a better life you led?” (“Bitters & Absolut”)
“Sorrow Waited, Sorrow Won” (Saddest Song): Although every song from The National is sorrowful to some degree, the narrative of cubicle misery in “Theory of the Crows” digs deepest into dismay. “Traded my daylight for a career,” Berninger sulks in his signature baritone. It features a heavy 6/8 beat that feels as inert and lethargic as the fluorescent-lit, windowless office that Berninger sings about. Like every other track on the band’s self-titled record, the instrumentation is unfiltered and sparse, but “Theory of the Crows” slowly strips itself away of all embellishment as it nears its end, striking a metaphor for withering away at a desktop.
“We’ll Run Like We’re Awesome” (Best Song): If there’s any song on The National that foreshadows what the band will soon become, opener “Beautiful Head” is incredibly prescient. Not only is this the introduction to their self-titled debut, but it was the introduction to The National in general. Most of The National’s 2001 record consists of alt-country and slide guitar, but “Beautiful Head” is the pure indie rock reminiscent of Alligator, The National’s breakthrough and still beloved LP.
“So Surprised You Want to Dance with Me Now” (Best Live Song): The National seldom play any tracks live from their first album, but “Cold Girl Fever” is a song that would make for a nice surprise amid the band’s more modern material. Similar to “Beautiful Head,” “Cold Girl Fever” was predictive in that it contains many songwriting elements The National are known for. It has Berninger’s crooning attitude and clever lyrics and even some synth experimentation seen on later albums such as Sleep Well Beast and I Am Easy to Find. Including a song like this on their upcoming tour would sonically make sense, and it’d be a reward for those following the band since their origins.
“I’ll Explain Everything to the Geeks” (General Analysis): The National’s self-titled debut, while not by any means a bad record, was more of an embryonic stage for the band than a definitive one. During this era, the Cincinnati quintet (then a quartet, Bryce Dessner wasn’t a member yet), was still determining its sound. The National is brimming with alt-country, an influence that’s nowhere to be seen on albums such as Boxer or Alligator. Though few fans have likely given this album a thorough listen, The National is an important beginning step in the band’s discography.
07. Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003)
Runtime: 44:54 (12 tracks)
“I Must Be Me, I’m in My Head”: “We look younger than we feel/ And older than we are” (“It Never Happened”)
“Sorrow Waited, Sorrow Won”: Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers is such a perfect title for a National album — it’s like Murder Ballads for Nick Cave or The Shape of Jazz to Come for Ornette Coleman. (It’s also a title that could apply to about half of Morrissey’s albums and any of Leonard Cohen’s.) The saddest song on Sad Songs, and arguably one of the five saddest songs this band has ever made, is “Cardinal Song”. There’s a muted, immersive quality to the instrumentation, almost as if it was recorded underwater, whereas Berninger’s vocals sound like they’re coming at you from the next bar stool over. “Never tell the one you want that you do,” he purrs. “Save it for the deathbed.” You can’t get much bleaker than that.
“We’ll Run Like We’re Awesome”: The jump in songwriting quality from The National to Sad Songs is immediate from the first few tunes, especially “Slipping Husband”. Berninger sings to a friend who more or less gave up his career to become a family man, and now he’s in danger of losing that very family. It has the makings of a tragedy, but it’s spiked by some of Berninger’s most brutally funny lyrics, including telling his friend: “You could have been a legend, but you became a father.” By the end of the song, even he doesn’t want to hear his buddy’s fantasies: “Dear, we better get a drink in you before you start to bore us.” It holds up pretty well musically, too, a punchy, chiming track that builds to a raucous, screamed climax in its final minute.
“So Surprised You Want to Dance with Me Now”: Much like The National, Sad Songs has effectively been retired from live performances. “Available”, “Cardinal Song”, and “Murder Me Rachael” appeared on setlists as recently as 2014, but the only cut off of Sad Songs you’re likely to hear today is “Lucky You”. It’s a breakup song, sure, but the tone isn’t one of bitterness so much as resignation; Berninger’s ex-lover is still going to have a hold on him long after she’s found someone else. “You own me/ There’s nothing you can do,” he sings, not that there’s anything he can do, either. It took the crowd about a minute to spot this one when The National played it at the Red Hat Amphitheater in Raleigh, NC, last May, but as soon as it registered, the only person in the room talking was Berninger.
“I’ll Explain Everything to the Geeks”: I’ll admit that I can’t remember the last time I listened to Sad Songs in full before taking on this piece. In revisiting it, I was pleasantly surprised: it’s hardly a definitive musical statement of purpose, but it’s better than your average early-aughts indie rock album. In its lesser moments, Sad Songs sounds like a more-refined version of what you heard on their debut, but its best songs feature sharper lyrics and some signs of musical experimentation. It’s a good album in its own right, but Sad Songs is most important in how it transformed the band who released The National into the band who would release Alligator.
06. I Am Easy to Find (2019)
Runtime: 63:35 (16 tracks)
“I Must Be Me, I’m in My Head”: “First Testament was really great/ The sequel was incredible/ Like the Godfathers or the first two Strokes/ Every document’s indelible” (“Not in Kansas”)
“Sorrow Waited, Sorrow Won”: The National’s new record, I Am Easy to Find, closes on a plaintive note with the piano ballad “Light Years”. As the Mike-Mills-directed short film that accompanies the album suggests, I Am Easy to Find revolves around concepts of life, death, and impermanence. It showcases a woman, portrayed by Alicia Vikander, experiencing both the joys and ills of life, and as her life comes to an end, “Light Years” plays straight into the credits. “The glory of it all was lost on me/ ‘Til I saw how hard it’d be to reach you,” Berninger broods. “And I would always be light years away from you.” The luscious strings and soft piano that bubble underneath Berninger’s vocals only augment the melancholic atmosphere.
“We’ll Run Like We’re Awesome”: When a song bleeds past the infamous five-minute mark, it can typically be condensed so that it doesn’t become monotonous. There are only two songs on The National’s eighth LP that exceed this length, but in both instances, it’s time well spent, particularly in the case of “So Far, So Fast”. It’s a slow build that never bursts into an expected release. It’s a track that takes its time, leading the listener to somewhere completely unknown, littered by sparse percussion, guitar harmonies, and angelic vocals from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
“So Surprised You Want to Dance with Me Now”: It’s no secret that The National have already played quite a few tracks from their latest album live, one of which is the incredibly percussive “Where Is Her Head”. They debuted it with indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers back in April, and it opens with simple, repeated chords, followed by auxiliary percussion and later Bryan Devendorf’s crackling snare and punchy bass drum. The lyrics are composed almost completely of questions (“Is she outside? Is she looking out? Is she standing up?”), which pair perfectly with Mike Mills’ equally ambiguous short film.
“I’ll Explain Everything to the Geeks”: I Am Easy to Find and the album that preceded it, Sleep Well Beast, almost beg to be compared to each other. The same synth experimentation and loop manipulation seen on Sleep Well Beast is found here. Even the exact haunting synth that opens “I’ll Still Destroy You” is heard on “So Far, So Fast” and “Quiet Light”. And it may be easy to make such comparisons, but I Am Easy to Find is an entirely new direction for The National. They’ve never had nearly as many collaborators before, including Sharon Van Etten, Gail Ann Dorsey, and Lisa Hannigan to name a few. It’s a record that also takes liberties with its length, but not to its detriment. Instead of being overzealous, it’s patient, and it asks listeners for this patience, too. Because of this, it may not have the immediate appeal of records such as High Violet or Boxer, but it’s all the more rewarding and adventurous for it.
05. Sleep Well Beast (2017)
Runtime: 57:32 (12 tracks)
“I Must Be Me, I’m in My Head”: “Young mothers love me, even ghosts of/ Girlfriends call from Cleveland/ They will meet me anywhere” (“Day I Die”)
“Sorrow Waited, Sorrow Won”: Sleep Well Beast puts its saddest foot forward first with “Nobody Else Will Be There”. The song enters the picture slowly before snapping into focus, not that there’s much to focus on beyond a minimal piano riff and some clicks and whirs in the background. But that’s all it needs as Berninger pleads with the woman he loves to step outside the party they’re at for a second and talk to him about their fraying relationship. And when Berninger’s voice unexpectedly leaps into its upper register at the three-minute mark — “Hey baby, where were you back there/ When I needed your help?” — it never fails to break my heart.
“We’ll Run Like We’re Awesome”: During its recording, Berninger described Sleep Well Beast as “weird, math-y, electronic-y,” and for the most part, these experiments hit more than they miss. Of the hits, “I’ll Still Destroy You” is the most satisfying and haunting. “It’s so easy to set off the molecules and the caplets,” Berninger gravely intones over ghostly coos and skittering beats. He’s terrified — not just of substances that make him feel more level but less like himself, but of what his volatile psyche might be doing to his family. “I swear you got a little taller since I saw you,” Berninger lovingly sings to his daughter on the brink of the song’s violent conclusion, before delivering the song’s most crushing line: “I’ll still destroy you.” As bad as the fear of doing damage to your loved ones is, it pales in comparison to the realization that you’ve already passed it on.
“So Surprised You Want to Dance With Me Now”: On the whole, Sleep Well Beast is The National’s mess-around-with-electronics album, but it’s got some of their hardest-rocking material since the Alligator days. Case in point: “Day I Die,” which the band has played at nearly every show since the record dropped. If you don’t already believe Bryan Devendorf is among the best drummers in indie rock, you will within the first 30 seconds. Couple that with a chorus that begs to be shouted along to, and the screeching guitar that responds to it, and you’ve got The National’s most anthemic track in years.
“I’ll Explain Everything to the Geeks”: From a purely lyrical standpoint, Sleep Well Beast is top-tier National. The central narrative of the album is about saving a crumbling marriage, which gets really meta when you consider that Berninger’s wife, Carin Besser (a former fiction editor for The New Yorker), co-wrote the lyrics with him. (She’s had writing credits on previous songs, but never across a full album.) It’s musically where Sleep Well Beast falters. Some of the more experimental songs, such as “I’ll Still Destroy You” and “Guilty Party”, successfully marry electronic elements to The National’s signature brand of brooding, while others, such as “Walk It Back” and the title track, aren’t interesting enough to justify their length. Objectively, Sleep Well Beast is a good album, and for two thirds of its hour-long runtime, The National deliver the kind of emotionally resonant songwriting that has made them indie rock heavies for two decades. It’s just that for much of the other third, they don’t.