The National have an affirmed status as the biggest cult band in the world right now.
Despite a long and arduous 18-year existence, it took the Cincinnati indie rockers four albums and some substantial critical acclaim to finally worm their way onto many music fans radar and only now are they beginning to earn relative household name status, a title they have been long-deserving of.
Consisting of two pairs of brothers - Aaron and Bryce Dessner (both on guitar) and Scott and Bryan Devendorf (bass and drums respectively) – as well as their horn-rimmed glasses toting, gravel voiced frontman Matt Berninger, The National have carved out their own niche for indie rock that is epic of scale and wears its heart decidedly on its sleeve.
So, to tie in with the band’s first ever UK No.1 album with ‘Sleep Well Beast’, let us retrace our steps through the long 16-year recording history of The National.
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‘The National’ (2001)
Raised in Ohio and based in Brooklyn, after short stints in a number of overlapping bands throughout the 1990s, The National were formed in 1999 and released their eponymous debut album two years later on a label founded by band member Aaron and his brother (and soon to be guitarist) Bryce Dessner alongside friend Alec Hanley Bemis. This early outing from the band saw them cross indie rock with distinct alternative country sensibilities.
Whilst leagues away from the complex structures of their more modern works, the early signs of the band’s trademark soaring melodies and grounded lyricism can be found on tracks like ‘The Perfect Song’ and ‘American Mary’, attributes that would later become staples of the band’s sound.
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‘Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers’ (2003)
‘Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers’ was the band’s second record released independently on Brassland (the label started by the Dessner brothers). Having shed their alternative-country skin for a more rounded alternative rock stance, ‘Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers’ also brought in rapturous acclaim and greater commercial success – something that allowed for the band to eventually quit their day jobs and signed up with Beggars Banquet.
Matt Berninger’s lyrics in particular shine through, with his eloquent tales of failed relationships and personal grief helping to define the band’s sound.
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An unabashedly large-scale entry into The National’s cannon, particularly when compared to their previous albums. Musically ‘Alligator’ sees the band embrace lush textures and interesting rhythms as the Dessner brothers begin to start to demonstrate their knack for epic soundscapes and indie rock structuring. Berninger’s lyrics are also characteristically melancholic as he derives a wistful beauty from such bleak subject matter.
A deeply personal album with the perfect musical accompaniment ‘Alligator’ sold over 200,000 copies globally and alongside further critical acclaim and high-profile sold-out shows in Los Angeles and New York was a vital step towards founding their now die-hard fanbase.
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The one where it all changed. In the history of The National, it’s hard to look past this record as the band’s magnum opus. ‘Boxer’ takes its name from the vicious fights the protagonists in Berninger’s lyrics have whilst in love, a constant recurring theme in The National’s discography and part of the raw appeal of the band, and this album in particular, as showcased on tracks like the heartfelt ‘Start a War’ and contemplative ‘Brainy’.
Featuring on many an ‘album of the decade’ list, ‘Boxer’ brought the reflective lyrics and delightfully crafted song indie-rock structures to the masses in a big way, with the album’s opening track, the anthemic piano-led ‘Fake Empire’ proving a favourite amongst fans and mainstay in the band’s live show. With orchestral swirls and cerebral lyrics this is the record that catapulted a band consisting of classically trained musicians into the realms of indie rock stardom.
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‘High Violet’ (2010)
The National acted on their initial commercial success by landing yet another knockout album, met with similar critical buzz and smattering of awards, even landing the No. 5 spot in the UK charts. ‘High Violet’ was the sound of an assured band consolidating their trademark sound to great effect, perfectly marrying the ornately decorated indie rock soundtrack conjured by the Dessner brothers with the dark, introspective lyricism of Matt Berninger.
Tracks like ‘Terrible Love’, ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ and ‘England’ stand out as some of the band’s finest work to date and masterful examples of just how far the band’s songwriting has progressed. The success of ‘High Violet’ also allowed for the band to indulge in a few other side projects such as their rendition of ‘The Rains of Castamere’ for the Game of Thrones episode ‘Blackwater’, as well as recording songs for other popular TV series Boardwalk Empire and Bob’s Burgers.
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‘Trouble Will Find Me’ (2013)
Six albums in and The National dial up the scale for a grandiose record of confessional indie rock. ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is the tumultuous journey through the psyche of Matt Berninger, shifting between heart-on-sleeve anthems (‘This is the Last Time’, ‘Sea of Love’) and softer introspective moments (‘Fireproof’, ‘Heavenfaced’).
It’s a vital collection of songs all glued together by inch-perfect production values and the all too familiar, earnest baritone of Berninger. Commercially ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ brought even more success, their highest selling album thus far, as well as landing them a Grammy nomination for ‘Best Alternative Album’ in 2014. Such a wave of commercial acclaim also resulted in the achievement of further milestones as a live act, with the band playing increasingly larger venues across the globe.
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‘Sleep Well Beast’ (2017)
After a four year absence, the band returned this year with seventh album ‘Sleep Well Beast’. A staunch reminder of The National’s ability to continue to reinvent and progress their already somewhat nuanced sound with the slightest of delicate touches. In this case the inclusion of electronic tinges on tracks like ‘Walk it Back’ and ‘I’ll Destroy You’ stand out as examples of a band continuing to mature and grow with age, whilst maintaining a ferocious bite on the jagged Stooges-like ‘Turtleneck’.
And still more success as The National land their first No.1 album a week before they are set to play a sold-out UK tour including four nights at London’s Eventim Apollo. Many bands 18 years in would struggle to find inspiration, ‘Sleep Well Beast’ however is as uncompromising as The National has ever been and proof that indie rock when done correctly and with genuine heart still can be progressive and have a place in the 21st century musical landscape.
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Words: Rory Marcham
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