Dad Rock, Sad Rock, Not Rock at All? Ranking The National’s Albums
As a working dad of young kids, I need little things to look forward to.
While most of things are enjoyed semi regularly, the latter is all too rare — perhaps because there’s only a few bands for me whose new releases are major events that go beyond “Oh, I’ll have to give that a listen”.
Ohioan gloomsayers The National sit comfortably in this category. Their tight musicianship, mood-setting qualities and collective creativity ensure each album is a foray into the unknown; however, they’re also a “safe” bet, given each album they’ve released has been excellent in its own way — particularly since 2005’s Alligator.
That’s almost two decades of greatness, which is a long time to be relevant in the modern era where attention spans are short and our ability to dispose and move on to the next thing has never been keener.
As they’ve evolved from American root-rockers to stadium band The National have been loathe to categorisation. “Dad-rock” is one label that’s somehow stuck with them, but (to this scribe at least) it’s a lazy one. It implies they’re a mainstream act but, big as they are, they aren’t global superstars like some artists to whom the term might better suit — The Eagles or Springsteen spring to mind. Maybe it’s the crumbly association between Matt Berninger’s “hangdog” persona, the band’s melancholy sound and the mental health issues that cripple many a middle-aged bloke, but they pull in their share of younger listeners, too.
This was originally to be a round-up of The National’s 10 best songs but that was a task nigh on impossible and as a busy dad I had neither the time nor the inclination for ”killing darlings”. So here are their eight studio albums ranked instead.
8th: The National (2001)
The National’s largely anonymous debut is their Pablo Honey: solid, but in no way a precursor of things to come. Recorded prior to lead guitarist Bryce Dessner fully joining the band, it’s a sparse, alt-country offering of disparate charm. And while Berninger’s soulful side appears on “Bitters & Absolut”, a duo with Nathalie Jonas that lifts like a hair-of-the-dog Bloody Mary, the album isn’t a wise entry point for The National.
Key tracks: “American Mary”, “Bitters & Absolut”, “Beautiful Head”
7th: Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003)
Sad Songs deserves more credit than being lumped with The National’s debut as “those two albums that came before Alligator”. Yes, it pales to what came next, but it’s possibly the band’s most diverse album. Berninger is heating up lyrically, too (“Do you feel alone, when I’m in my head?” he barks on “Available”). Flickering between eggshell ballads and edgy rock, the aptly titled Sad Songs is a rewarding sophomore effort. Stardom was within reach.
Key tracks: “Murder me Rachael”, “Slipping Husband”, “Lucky You”, “Cardinal Song”
6th: Sleep Well Beast (2017)
Sleep Well Beast proved that The National, like all great bands, can change direction without losing their distinctiveness. “Day I Die” is defiantly anthemic but the broader palate is awash with Kid A-style synths and drum machines. Possibly the darkest, deepest journey into Berninger’s head, it’s an immersive experience – the only missteps being the tonally-jarring “Turtleneck” and weighed-down “Born to Beg”.
Key tracks: “I’ll Still Destroy You”, “Day I Die”, “The System Only Dream in Total Darkness”, “Empire Line”, “Nobody Else Will Be There”
5th: I Am Easy to Find (2019)
If Sleep Well Beast was a riposte to critics who equate The National’s “consistent” tag with “rehashing the formula”, I Am Easy to Find wholeheartedly (and gracefully) flips the bird. Almost all traces of their early guitar-driven sound make way for synths and strings while Berninger cedes from centre stage, giving way – sometimes entirely – to female vocalists and (perhaps needlessly) youth choirs. Airy yet stunning.
Key tracks: “Oblivions”, “Roman Holiday”, “Quiet Light”, “Light Years”, “Rylan”
4th: High Violet (2010)
A decadent, exquisitely wrapped collection of human vignettes, High Violet is widely viewed as The National’s high-water mark. Relationships, paranoia, depression – it’s all here, further layered by guest vocalists Sufjan Stevens and Justin Vernon –but it never feels weighed down; the “light” contains the “shade”. And with both versions on the expanded version, the question remains: which “Terrible Love” is better?
Key tracks: “Terrible Love (Alternate Version)”, “Sorrow”, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, “England”, “Conversation 16”
3rd: Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
Trouble Will Find Me is easily imagined as the soundtrack to a dinner party of sharply dressed couples, all masking the kind of fragility and middle-class anxiety that Berninger nails lyrically. This is The National at their most crisp-sounding, adding warmth and colour to the crestfallen tunes. “Graceless” sounds anything but, while “Pink Rabbits” is a song so romantic that Elvis wouldn’t have done it justice.
Key tracks: “I Should Live in Salt”, “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, “Sea of Love”, “Pink Rabbits”, “Demons”
2nd: Alligator (2005)
It’s obvious, once you’ve heard the poignant one-two punch of “Secret Meeting” and “Karen” (containing what may be Berninger’s greatest lyric, “It’s a common fetish, for a doting man, to ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand“) that Alligator is a leap forward for the five-piece, freed from the shackles of day jobs. While production is a little gruffer than later albums, Alligator is all about the urgent, melodious tunes.
Key tracks: “Secret Meeting”, “Mr November”, “All The Wine”, “Karen”, “Friend of Mine”, “The Geese of Beverly Road”
1st: Boxer (2007)
The National don’t make bad albums, but in Boxer they have one of the great records of the 2000s. Like a 1950s-style root beer, it’s full and strong all the way down. Drummer Devendorf is seemingly given carte-blanche, while piano, string and even horn arrangements accompany devastating guitars. Boxer is as visceral as it gets: rich in melancholy; high in intensity. And “Slow Show” is the cool couples’ wedding song.
Key tracks: “Fake Empire”, “Ada”, “Squalor Victoria”, “Mistaken for Strangers”, “Brainy”, “Slow Show”