When you’re in love with a band, there is always this thick tension that comes with a new album. Is it better for a new album to show a band that’s trying to change or is it better to hear more of the same? It is impossible to reach any sort of consensus because of the different reasons there are to fall in love with a band. Bands continue to write the same exact record over again because of that shared emotional attachment between author and listener. You want the same songs from certain people. You want Alkaline Trio to stay the same because you can’t wait for that new song that hit you like “Bleeder” what you look for with each new Trio album is that song that hits your heart strings. The Replacements are the same way.
But what about the moment when that band branches out and tries for something new? The Replacements are giving you something like “Alex Chilton” and a music video and you’re thinking “fuck you, this is not ‘Unsatisfied.’” Sometimes you’ll never get over that “fuck you” reaction. You dump Against Me! and then get really really pissed off about all the people that love New Wave. This band has pissed you off enough to where you hate everything about them. I fucking hate Tom Gabel. Fuck that guy. I have heard multiple sources providing solid, justifiable reasons for why they’re cool with Tom Gabel doing what he’s doing right now, but fuck him. He sold out.
And people hated so many bands that have now become accepted into the lexicon. Kids love the Replacements now, even though Don’t Tell A Soul was an attempt to get famous and, at the time, ostracized them from whatever longstanding fan base they still had left. And while there are those guys who get famous and get to move on based on record sales: Green Day. Against Me! There are the guys that struck out. Paul Westerberg. Those guys get nothing, everyone turned on them. And now people get it and Westerberg throws his hands up in the air because he’s done with that band. [The Replacements will never re-unite. Chris Mars will never feel the need to do it, and Paul Westerberg knows that. That’s why he keeps saying “there’s no Mats without Chris Mars.” Asshole.]
The National’s 2007 release Boxer is a record that I care about like nothing else. Matt Berninger has continued to explain the last three years of my life to me as I’m going through it. And it comes in the most gorgeous delivery. His voice is one of the most distinct, strong, and commanding in music today. His surrealist imagery and affinity for killer one-liners is fucking gorgeous:
Looking for somewhere to stand and stay
I leaned on the wall and the wall leaned away
Can I get a minute of not being nervous
and not thinking of my dick
My leg is sparkles, my leg is pins
I better get my shit together, better gather my shit in
You could drive a car through my head in five minutes
from one side of it to the other
The fourth through ninth tracks on that album are all absolutely perfect. I don’t see a single flaw in lyric, muscial compliment, sequence. The prodcution of this album was without flaw. Well thought out layers, it sounds big, but not too big. Perfection.
I figured that this band had absolutely found their peak. This sound, the sound of those five songs was the point where they had everything they could possibly have down. Everything you hear on Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers and Alligator is just a prologue to that moment in my opinion. For twenty minutes, they have everything down. In their pockets. They knew what they were doing and how to do it.
Then I saw them at Pitchfork and they opened their set with “The Runaway” and I was nearly in tears watching this song that I had never heard before. It was everything that was beautiful about “Start A War” only even more perfectly contained. The imagery. The repetition (there is nothing but one-liners in the song repeated over and over. Every fucking line is something that a good writer would cream their pants over. You would try and base a song around any one of them.) The sound swells so well with those interweaving base guitar tracks, the rhythm section floats and coming in and out are horns and strings and all of this comes together slowly. It’s the most steady and moving build up that I think I’ve ever heard.
I was pretty convinced by the end of hearing this song that I was watching the new “best band in America” on stage at one of the biggest music festivals in the country. And while Pitchfork had lauded the band in their reviews, they weren’t nearly as popular with the fans. And when they came out and played that song, I was in awe both at the progress and (what seemed to me) like a general consensus that this band had hit one of the most excited strides any of us had seen since The Arcade Fire showed up.
And I sat and waited for months to hear what they could possibly come up with at this point. They were on such a run coming off of Boxer and with the promise of “The Runaway” behind them and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” came and kicked us all in the dick. What a fucking killer song.
And now, finally I have the new National album and I’m only now, after 8 or 9 listens, just realizing that this is not Boxer and it never tried to be.
“Runaway” and “Bloodbuzz” are the absolute peak of the National that I know. Those songs are the sound of the National perfected. I texted my Dad and I said “The national are setting themselves up to be the best band in america.” “After spoon?” “No. Spoon isn’t even close, no one is.”
I was so excited to hear an entire album of this. These songs, this perfected sound and when it finally leaked I was so excited to have it. But when I listened to the album the first night I got it I was really mad that after several listens, there was no “Apartment Story pt. 2.” “The Runaway” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” are the only songs that really sound like the National and I’m mad as hell about it.
But the more I listen to this record, the more I realize that there doesn’t need be a “Fake Empire pt. 2” to start the next album and the band isn’t interested in writing “Fake Empire pt. 2.” They want us to hear this song they wrote “Terrible Love.” A song that is so heavily layered and complex that listening to it, I feel slightly uncomfortable. I can’t point out instruments, the layers of percussion and noise are so dense and it keeps getting bigger. Berninger’s vocals start out confident, but they give way to the addition of layers of piano, strings, percussion, and guitar. When the band finally reaches the song’s refrain (after 2:15 of build-up) the vocals become faint and they’re pleading and desperate sounding, the command of “Fake Empire” is yielded to a discomforting, bleeding panic. By the end of this song, it doesn’t even sound like music anymore. It sounds like the end of the world. When I listen to it loud on headphones, I get nauseous.
The album is very disorienting. It’s difficult. There aren’t many standouts, hardly any singalongs, a couple songs I couldn’t give a shit about, but I’m finding little moments on the record, but it’s not The National I know, the National I know is over. They’re done writing “Fake Empire” because, even though it would be great to hear another one, what’s the fucking point? This is the record they’re supposed to make, even though everyone would have loved another Boxer, but that would have been too easy. This band is evolving and growing and my suggestion is that you do everything you can to try and grow along with them because they’re a band that consistently rewards a person who listens to their records over and over again—and that may be the most important trait for any great band. I’m still waiting to completely fall in love with High Violet. But I’m convinced that this is the album that has effectively made them the best band in America, just not for the reasons I was expecting.