Eleven years ago, two sets of brothers – Scott and Bryan Devendorf (drums and bass), and identical twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars – joined forces with vocalist and songwriter, Matt Berninger to put together an album that would take the ensemble through four more releases, securing them a place in the alternative rock hall of excellence. The band was the National, the album self titled. The National had already made a bit of a name for themselves on the live circuit and their first release started an excited murmur in wider critical circles, for good reason.
The National takes a place within the overlap of alternative country and alternative rock and indie pop. Berninger’s velvety baritone vocals blend with soft and sweeping guitars, soulful keys and a sparse rhythm to create a rich and often melancholic reflection reminiscent of indie rock cult hallmarks, Yo La Tengo and Bill Callahan’s Smog. In later releases, the National would come down more on the side of indie pop, which is arguably where they would find their international popular appeal, but this debut is more about the dark, the sombre, the troubled and the stark and the beautiful.
The album opens with the gentle acoustics of ‘ Beautiful Head’, jumping up to a more upbeat but still not quite pop rhythm contrasting the depth of Berninger’s voice and the angsty gruffness of the lyrics. Through twelve tracks, the album broods along these same lines. ‘American Mary’ comes in with a bit more of a country feel – think Johnny Cash meets Tom Waits meets IRS era R.E.M. ‘Pay For Me’ takes a bit more of a direct rock influence, while the highly impressive ‘John’s Star’ takes an all-of-the-above approach with a stirring and multi-layered depth of smooth synths and acoustics contrasted with a fierce electric distortion underlying the jarring refrain “once ruined, baby, you stay ruined.”
If I was forced to find a complaint with this album, and one has to look really hard to do so, it is the ordering of the final two tracks. The album closes with ‘Anna Freud’, an alt rock song with thin acoustics and a gentle moderately quick beat, Berninger’s trademark vocals doing everything they’ve done all album (which is in no way a bad thing). The complaint, if you could call it that – observation is perhaps better – is the previous track, ’29 Years’ would, in a very humble opinion, make a better closer. ’29 Years’ is a deeply morose song, a brooding and lonely piano and up-all-night-drinking vocals singing a tale of loss and disillusionment overlaying a scratchy background of an old vinyl. To go from this back to the more upbeat – and that’s upbeat in terms of rhythm, not attitude – of ‘Anna Freud’ seems a touch incoherent to the album’s overall flow. But perhaps that’s the purpose – to move through to the lowest point and then come out the other side.
For a first release alternative rock album, the National is masterfully polished and smooth without loosing any of the raw edge that makes it such a pure bit of alternative rock. Listening to it retrospect, it’s utterly clear why the National came to have such an impact on critical and popular circles over their career, something which continues with every release.