April 23, 2010


The National Agenda (NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF, 4/23/10, NY Times Magazine)

It was supposed to be the National’s moment. After years of mostly anonymous struggle, the National’s two previous albums, “Alligator” (2005) and “Boxer” (2007), were so full of strangely isolated songs about friendship, romance and work that they had created for this new release the sort of expectant critical murmur that has been rare to hear since the end of the age of record shops. “Alligator” and “Boxer” did what excellent rock ’n’ roll albums did in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s: transcended the sum of their singles to offer something larger. In the National’s case, it was a powerful, probing feeling for the inner lives of average people out in the American heartland. So good was the music that with it came the promise of what might follow, the heady potential that the National would soon take things one step further, go ahead and make the great Middle American novel as music, an album for our time. But now, they seemed intent on holding all that off as long as possible.

The track currently under consideration was called “Wrath,” although they were renaming it “Lemonworld” — unless they decided to go with “You and Your Sister.” “We just redid the drums; now we’re redoing the guitars,” Aaron said, as his brother, Bryce, began fingering a new riff to accompany a chorus that began: “You and your sister live in a Lemonworld/I want to sit in and die.” They were all long past finding any irony in that.

“You like it?” Matt, the singer, asked Aaron when Bryce was done.

“No,” Aaron said. “It’s too shimmery U2. He should keep trying.” Then to his twin he instructed, “Try something else” and suggested “a more interesting rhythm that circulates around the chords.” At the word “interesting” Matt winced. Bryce’s orientation is classical — he studied guitar at the Yale School of Music and collaborates with the likes of Steve Reich and Philip Glass — but Matt can neither read notation nor play an instrument. His musical predilections generally run more along the lines of “a heavy metal thing,” which he would later, in a band debate regarding the song “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” also shorthand as “some hot Jimmy Page scuzz,” and the twins would dismiss as “Berninger black-fantasy guitar.”

Over the years, Matt has accumulated a flock of snide nicknames from his band mates, including the Dark Lord, the Naysayer, Mumbleberry Pie, Mr. Knee Jerk, Mr. Sony Headphones and the Echo Chamber — the last for the coterie of musically astute persons whom Matt frequently invokes supporting his opinion of whatever song they are arguing about. Since the only one of these gifted listeners Matt has ever introduced to the others is his wife, Carin Besser, who until recently edited short stories at The New Yorker, it is Aaron and Bryce’s belief that Matt is not the only fiction expert in the marriage. Matt’s assessment of the situation is: “Everybody thinks everybody else has secret ulterior motives because we all do. We purposefully set up decoys and red herrings to attack a song. That we’re all playing mind games is sort of funny, but it’s also frustrating.”

With the National, it’s never only rock ’n’ roll. Watching them record a song is like looking on as a group of skilled chefs make a sandwich together; even in a B.L.T., they can foresee endless possibilities. They are now five men in their mid- to late 30s, with mortgages, children, wives or serious girlfriends and musical tastes that have likewise settled into convictions. Each National song is a microbatch creation integrating their obsessive, often-diverging feelings about rock ’n’ roll.

...this sort of pretentious nonsense is why punk rock was so welcome.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 23, 2010 5:09 PM
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