The National – Alligator (2005)
1. Secret Meeting
3. Lit Up
4. Looking For Astronauts
5. Daughters Of The SoHo Riots
6. Baby, We’ll Be Fine
7. Friend Of Mine
8. Val Jester
9. All The Wine
11. The Geese Of Beverly Road
12. City Middle
13. Mr. November
“And so and now I’m sorry I missed you, I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain…”
With this simple part of the opening track “Secret Meeting”, 54 seconds into the album, I was hooked. A clever lyric, an excellent delivery, and most of all, a brilliant arrangement (the guitars and piano cut out to allow lead singer Matt Berninger to deliver the line over a simple bass beat, then all kick up once the lyric is delivered). It may be my favourite ten seconds of song from any album of the past few years.
Sadly, I’d be lying if I said that the song grabbed me at the 54 second mark the first time I listened to Alligator, the third album from the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Cincinnati indie rock band. Fact is, I had listened to it a number of times on my computer without ever really taking to it. I even left it out of my Top 20 Albums of 2005 list when the end of the year rolled around. Then I bought the CD, put it in my car, and was instantly (well, 54 seconds in, which is close to an instant) struck by what an awesome track “Secret Meeting” is, and then continued to be amazed at how much I loved each subsequent track. Which tells me a few things: one, my computer speakers are a terrible way to appreciate music. Two, my Top 20 albums list has now been rendered obsolete. And three, Alligator was the most criminally-overlooked album of 2005. Consider this review my penance.
Fronted by Berninger, who has a mesmerising, Leonard Cohen-esque baritone with a casual, ironic delivery, The National is rounded out by a pair of siblings, Aaron (guitar) and Bryce Dessner (guitar), and Scott (guitar/bass) and Bryan Devendorf (drums). Alligator is a collection of complex, yet catchy, musical arrangements that require a few listens to truly appreciate. Flourishes abound for the attentive reader, the sort of thing one misses in a pair of factory Dell speakers, but builds with each subsequent listen.
The thing I like best about The National (beside those 10 seconds), is that their songs are overwhelmingly masculine. Not in a neanderthal, misogynistic, Limp Bizkit kind-of-way, but in a positive, Hemingwayesque kind-of-way. Obviously, part of this has to do with Berninger’s baritone delivery, but the content and moods all paint the picture of men’s men dealing with their lives and problems, wants and needs. It’s the sort of album a modern Clint Eastwood would put on to accompany himself and his good friend Jack Daniels.
The album tackles similar themes of less-masculine albums: feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and loss, but tackles them in a less navel-gazing way than your average band. It’s not that they’re less self-involved, it’s that their self-involvement takes the form of false bravado instead of self pity. A line like “I know you put in the hours to keep me in sunglasses, I know” from “Secret Meeting” is as delightfully vain as anything you’ll hear in a Morrissey track, but a lot more macho. If Coldplay are the sensitive guys that woo you with poetry, then The National are the bad boys who snare you with glimpses into their hidden depths beneath their tough-as-nails exterior.
Keeping with the testosterone-fuelled themes, “Karen” exhibits something lacking in a lot of indie rock– a libido. While pleading with his lover to give him another chance, he still has the urge to ask “Karen, put me in a chair, fuck me and make me a drink”, before changing tactics to say “Karen, believe me, you just haven’t seen my good side yet”. While not as blatantly sexual as Arab Strap, The National still inject tracks like “Karen”, “Daughters of the SoHo Riots”, and “Baby, We’ll Be Fine” with enough sexual urgency to prove that they never forget the power of the id. But behind all the bravado lies a brooding, almost-despondent fatalist who admits “I don’t know how to do this; I’m so sorry for everything” in “Baby, We’ll Be Fine”, a song perfect for the later hours in the night, when the bottom of the whiskey bottle draws closer with each sip.
Finally, the best part of the album is that as brilliantly as it opens with “Secret Meeting”, it closes out just as well with the tour-de-force track “Mr. November” (both of which contended for spots on my Top Five lists for opening and closing tracks). After treating the listener to 12 interesting, diverse, and complex tracks of a cynical, weary, and self-deprecating protagonist, Berninger finishes the album finding a reserve of strength, loudly proclaiming “I’m the new blue blood, I’m the great white hope… I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November”. It’s bold; it’s anthemic; and it’s almost enough, almost, to make us think that things just might turn out alright for this guy.