All The Wine: For The Love of The National
I’ve discovered The National three times over in my life: When I heard Boxer for the first time, when I saw them live in Lollapalooza ’08 and when I read their history as one of the most consistent, hard working, blue collar bands out there today.
When I first heard Boxer, I was totally immersed in the smooth, lush production: foamy guitars washing over intricate, yet accessible, drum signatures which constructed a sort of calm desperation. Matt Berninger’s voice fits perfectly over this soundscape; a warm velvet croon laid over a chill, winter landscape. Like a cup of coffee you drink on early winter’s morning.
When I saw them live, all that smooth production turned into a complete guitar-driven tour de force. Most piano arrangements got replaced with warm, tube-amped electric guitars. They are a very different beast when playing live. They project an energy and sense of immediacy that only exists on stage. On record, they are tame and elegant. Performing, they are wild and rough around the edges.
After I saw them live, like all bands I become invested in, I read up on their career. Up until that point, I didn’t realize they already had 3 other LP’s spanning almost a decade of critically acclaimed, Indie Americana. I was impressed by how consistent, and understated this band had been throughout their career. They’d never been an indie phenomenon the likes of The Strokes or Arcade Fire, yet record after record, they’ve proven themselves to be masters of their craft, true to form and style. Fine tuning it over and over into a smooth, articulate, pristine sound.
Their songs dominate the pop culture landscape of the late 00's, with cuts from Boxer featuring probably on almost every TV show you can think of in 2008. As well having songs like Bloodbuzz Ohio and Terrible love in every other RomCom trailer from the last decade. They’ve also penned songs exclusively for soundtracks and other collaborations, like Exile Vilify for Portal 2, and Think You Can Wait for the Paul Giamatti film Win Win. Or taking part of collaborative projects like Dark Was the Night or the Grateful Dead tribue Day of the Dead. It is a telltale sign of how restless they are with their continuous effort to create music.
To celebrate the release of their 7th LP, Sleep Well Beast, I’ve put together a list of highlights spanning their 15+ year career.
This is All The Wine. A playlist, For The Love of The National.
Listen on Spotify.
Listen on Apple Music.
1. Fake Empire (Boxer, 2007)
One of the quintessential Track Ones of the last decade, Fake Empire introduced the band to an entire generation of festival goers. Key to the track is an understated hiss that’s present through out. A key element to convey the lo-fi, low key, unpretentious atmosphere that dominates most of Boxer. By the time the full band kicks in, just before a little piano break, the band have wrapped their warm sound around us. The lyrics paint a picture perfect scene of American Life, only to reveal how it all can unravel fast. And how a couple that’s in love can be oblivious to everything going on around them.
2. Secret Meeting (Alligator, 2005)
Also Track One, Side One, Secret Meeting came right out of the gate to cement Alligator as one of the best albums of 2005. The scarce guitar work, laid over a seemingly convoluted bass line, gives Matt’s vocals room to breathe as he croons about the anxiety of having doubts in a relationship, and screwing up because of it. Thematically similar to The Killers’ Mr. Brightside, it paints a more complex scenario of emotions and doubts. It stands as the tip of the iceberg of what was to come from the band over the course of their next 4 LPs.
3. Bloodbuzz Ohio (High Violet, 2010)
Arguably the band’s best track, Bloodbuzz unwinds so rapidly through it’s first couple of bars, that we are running to catch up by the time the vocals come in. It’s production is so finely layered and nuanced that the sound becomes a blanket of lush piano work and locomotive drum work. The fact that this masterpiece features a piano riff at the coda, instead of an intricate guitar solo, speaks volumes about the careful composition and originality the band put into their craft. It’s a dizzying trip into the rite of passage of leaving (and coming back) home, into the angst and bitter-sweetness of the hate-love relationships we struggle to maintain.
4. Graceless (Trouble Will Find Me, 2013)
There is incredible merit in staying fresh, while maintaining the same sound. Graceless stands out as one of TWFM best tracks. The lyrics, spoken in the first person, paint the modern picture of our spiritual journey; a bourbon fueled road trip across a frosty landscape where we neglect God and his church, yet we secretly expect redemption and forgiveness, as we quietly hope for something more at the end of the day . It is the culmination of the band’s journey into the heart of their own dynamic as a live power house. A highlight on any night they perform, it is angry, unapologetic and welcoming at the same time.
5. American Mary (The National, 2001)
Besides providing the backstory for the band’s website (americanmary.com), American Mary is one of the bands early, understated gems. A perfect example of modern Americana (clearly influenced by the likes of Jeff Tweedy), it is a long way from the intricate production work featured on the bands latter efforts. Yet, the haphazard drumming stumbles along with the gentle acoustic strumming to provide an atmosphere of hazy, drunken love on an interstate somewhere. The contradiction of both wanting to love and leave someone. Like all great drinking songs, it has that great sing along chorus you sing with your friends, late at night, when she won’t pick up the phone or answer any of your texts.
6. Mr. November (Alligator, 2005)
The de facto hymn of Obama’s 2008 campaign, Mr. November first featured on Alligator, even though it was written five years earlier, about the 2004 presidential campaign. It’s maniac chorus, about fulfilling promises and the longing of glory days gone by, never fails to leave everyone punching the air. It is a staple in the bands catalogue and a statement on how they became part of the zeitgeist during the latter part of the 21st century’s first decade.
7. Apartment Story (Boxer, 2007)
My personal favorite, Apartment Story probably became the go-to song for every nesting millennial couple in the world. It’s simple, straight forward, radio friendly chorus makes it a must in any playlist put together by someone trying to tell their partner how much they love them. So much, the only thing you want to do is stay indoors, binge watching the newest season of… whatever. It is proof of how much universal appeal this band can achieve.
8. Think You Can Wait (Win Win OST, 2011)
This is a hidden gem from the band. One of their many non-album tracks, it is a beautiful ballad about the inner struggle everyone goes through as they fight to do better. The song is so delicately put together that it is, in part, a shame it isn’t on any album. But at the same time, it is extremely rewarding when you dig enough to come across it. It features Sharon Van Etten on backing vocals which ads a layer to how special this track is. There is always a story told about a band through their b-sides, a story of the band that could have been. In this case, it’s about a story about the band that always was. The slow moody piano feels so nostalgic, so regretful. You can feel the atmosphere of the track through your bones, like getting caught in the rain after a breakup. It’s The National doing what they do best, conveying melancholy through piano driven soft-rock.
9. Terrible Love (High Violet, 2010)
Something about the lo-fi sound in the intro of Terrible Love has always troubled me. It sounds like a bad AM recording, living on a third generation Maxwell tape. Yet, it is exactly what it should be. An imperfect atmosphere, that builds up to an imperfect resolution. It makes perfect sense for the song’s theme, about the wreckage of love that goes sour. “It takes an ocean not to break” is probably one of the bands best refrains. How the song builds up in its despair and restlessness as it reaches a full stop is the perfect ending to an imperfect track about an imperfect feeling.
10. Sea of Love (Trouble Will Find Me, 2013)
The lead single from Trouble, it features the lyric that gives the album it’s name. “If I stay here, trouble will find me” Matt regrets as the band steadily builds the song around him. It is a song about learning to let go of those things which are simply not meant for us. The words “Can’t stay here anymore, we’re turning into thieves” bluntly and painfully concede that sometimes, things aren’t meant to be. We’re left wondering if love is indeed a virtue. This is one of the bands tracks where they feel most restless, caught in a sleepless night wondering about love that is not meant to be.
11. Lucky You (Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, 2003)
Another one of the bands early cuts, Lucky You is a good reference to where this band is coming from. The production and it’s short comings portray a band that is stretching out, looking for the sound that will set them apart and that will ultimately make them unique. It’s straight forward rock sensibility makes up for the seemingly simple arrangements, which are classic Americana. Lyrically, it’s also much more naive than later visions of relationships and love. “You own me, there’s nothing you can do, lucky you.” Lucky us.
12. All The Wine (Alligator, 2005)
There is this moment whenever you are out with friends, where the bar closes and you have to decide if you go home, or you go out into the night, looking for whatever comes next. All The Wine feels like that exact moment; when you are out on the curve at 2:00am, smoking a cigarette you bummed from someone you hardly know, waiting to see what happens next. It features Matt in rare form, singing confidently in first person about being “Put together beautifully”. If LCD Soundsystem’s All My Friends is the song you play at the end of the night, All The Wine is the song you play right before the night pivots into the adventurous unknown of youth and drunkenness. It’s the sound of the cab ride to your next destination, whatever that may be.
13. Start A War (Boxer, 2007)
“We expected something, something better than before. We expected something more.” One of the best tracks on Boxer, Start A War is one of the quintessential The National songs. It simply happens, it begins quietly and understated, yet as the drums begin to pulsate more and more, and the song progresses, the ultimatum of what happens when you walk away from someone becomes more dramatic. As the metal section fills everything up, we feel the resolution of standing our ground. It’s a fan favorite, and one of the best examples of how this band is a master at building up a song.
14. Guilty Party (Sleep Well Beast, 2017)
Even tough it isn’t the lead single from Sleep Well Beast, Guilty Party is a key track in the band’s evolution. Along with the usual piano and moody atmosphere, the addition of electronic loops and sampling ad a new layer to The National’s sound. It is an indicator of where this band wants to take us next, carefully plotting and building on the sound they have been crafting for the last 15 years. Lyrically, it feels more personal than ever too “I say your name, I say I’m sorry.” An all too familiar place to be in. A heartbreaking resolution to many relationships, it is the calm after the gut wrenching storm that comes from the realization that things simply don’t work anymore. It’s an exciting place to be at, an ending. It implies a new beginning and a new direction. I can’t wait to see what that direction brings for this band next.