Where To Start With... The National
Hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio – although based in New York's Brooklyn neighbourhood these days – The National are one of the more cerebral bands to carve out a niche for themselves amongst the indie landscape, and often one of the most polarising. A band that has struggled more than most with detractors labelling them as 'boring', they nevertheless inspire adulation in audiences and fellow musicians alike; ask one of their fans to explain why they like the band so much and you can expect a lengthy eulogy on the inventiveness of Bryan Devendorf's drumming, the intricacies of the Dessner twins' guitar work or the baffling, unconventional time signatures employed in songs like 'Demons' or 'Fake Empire'.
Particularly in the band's early years, commercial success arrived at a glacial pace, so much so that the band almost called it a day before a 2003 performance at London's 93 Feet East promoting their sophomore album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, caught the eye of label bosses at Beggars Banquet, for whom the band would record their next two albums. The first of these, 2005's Alligator, garnered positive reviews but was largely ignored by the record-buying public, and while its 2007 follow-up Boxer enjoyed a similar critical reception and graced the upper regions of the album charts in countries such as Belgium, Finland and New Zealand, repeating that feat in the UK or, indeed, on their home turf, proved more difficult.
However, after being shuffled over to Beggars subsidiary 4AD - home to the likes of Ariel Pink, Grimes and Scott Walker - things began to change with the 2010 release of their fifth album High Violet, their most accomplished record to date and one that reached the top five in album charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
One need only look at the list of guest artists featured on High Violet's 2013 follow-up Trouble Will Find Me to get a measure of The National's growing list of admirers amongst their peers, with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten and Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry all contributing their considerable talents to an album which reached No. 3 in both the UK Album Chart and the Billboard 200.
This week sees the arrival of their seventh full-length offering, Sleep Well Beast, announced in May this year alongside the unveiling of the album's lead-off single 'The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness', a song that exemplifies The National's more anthemic tendencies and further evidence of a band that has finally mastered the skill of blending their muso sensibilities with a knack for melodic, radio-friendly tunes.
Self-produced by the band's chief creative forces Aaron Deesner, Bryce Dessner and frontman Matt Berninger, Sleep Well Beast is another assured step forward for a band who are already being talked up as potential Glastonbury headliners when the festival returns from its traditional five-yearly break in 2019.
You can find the video for the lead-off single below, beneath that we've picked out five key tracks from The National's back catalogue for new arrivals to their work...
Featured on the band's 2004 EP Cherry Tree, 'About Today' is perhaps best-known for featuring in Gavin O'Connor's gritty 2011 film Warrior, starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, the song's lyrics about loss proving the perfect fit for a film about a fighter putting everything on the line.
During Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, The National famously had t-shirts made bearing the name of one of Alligator's stand-out songs, but frontman Matt Berninger has since explained in an interview with Vice that the song was actually written with John Kerry in mind - not in support of his earlier campaign, but in sympathy with anyone under the pressure of playing the role of an electable candidate (“I'm the great white hope / I'm the new blue blood / I won't f*ck us over / I'm Mr. November”). Although they're sometimes described as a political band, in reality it's a song that is mostly about not wanting to think about politics.
One of the best moments on High Violet, 'Bloodbuzz Ohio' is one of the more uptempo songs on The National's breakthrough LP, but it's hardly upbeat. Written in a post-recession climate (“I still owe money to the money I owe”), Berninger's monochromatic delivery cuts across the song's vibe of barely contained frustration, characterised by Dessner's erupting, stuttering guitar solo towards the song's closing moments.
Taken from their 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me, 'Graceless' features a typically introspective lyric peppered with the kind of sly humour that Berninger has made his trademark (“God loves everybody, don't remind me”), set to one of the album's more euphoric tracks, propelled by frenetic drums and chiming guitars.
'I Need My Girl'
Our final pick is another from The National's sixth album, and one of its more melancholic moments. Berninger himself has said that 'I Need My Girl' is one of the most direct songs he has written, eschewing the usual clever wordplay and humour to write a song that is, quite simply, about missing his wife and daughter while on one of their exhaustive tours. On an album packed with cerebral songs, this one comes straight from the heart.
Sleep Well Beast is available in stores now, you can also find it here in our online store.