The National Illusion

The National Illusion
"This isn’t working, you, my middlebrow fuck-up.” This lament seems like it should be spit angrily out of a singer’s lips, but for the National, it’s just another of their surreal ruminations bathed in dark accents. Formed in the, uh, bustling metropolis of Cincinnati but now firmly based in Brooklyn, NY, the band consists of two sets of brothers, bassist Aaron and guitarist Bryce Dessner and guitarist Scott and drummer Bryan Devendorf. Yet, the most distinctive part of the National lies in the rich baritone of lead singer, Matt Berninger (who is sans sibling). A voice that infuses every strange image, like the one above, with a world-weary gravity, Berninger seems to be a voice for those exasperated and on the brink of surrender. Asked whether or not his music has ever been described as "gothic,” Berninger sighs. "We’ve been described as gothic, but you could describe so many things that way and I never quite know what that means. I always think of vampires and it doesn’t sound like that to me. I think some of the reason we get that is because I sing in a lower register than a lot of other pop music and maybe the fact we have pianos and strings. I don’t really know. We used to be called Americana or alt-country on our first record.” Indeed, it’s been a somewhat sudden rise to indie fame for the National. With nary an ear listening to their first two releases, it was their third, Alligator, that bounced onto many critics’ year-end lists. A much hyped tour with the then shit-hot Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! also helped get the word out.

Yet, their fourth album, and best to date, Boxer seems a natural progression from Alligator. Whereas that album had fast tempos and Berninger lighting speakers on fire with songs like "Abel” and "Lit Up,” Boxer revels in its atmosphere, preferring to speak quietly with a big stick. As Berninger notes, "It has loud songs, but, really, the only element that’s not on Boxer that was on Alligator is me screaming my head off. It seems like an insignificant issue so we didn’t think much about it. When we started out, we did want to make another version of Alligator, but it wasn’t to that level of deciding not to scream. It just happened.”

Really, Boxer excels by weaving a dark spell over the listener. With Berninger’s buttery and soft low register being backed by Bryan Devendorf’s deceptively simple, yet booming, drums, the tales told by Berninger and accentuated by the elegant and subtle orchestrations suck the listener into their universe. But if you’re thinking such consistency is planned, then the National’s lack of a game plan will prove you wrong. "For most of the songs, their seeds start all in different bedrooms, you know, and then we just figure out how to get them to gel together. We don’t really have a process that we follow,” Berninger explains. "A lot of it starts from Aaron. Maybe 70 percent of this record started from Aaron’s little guitar sketch and then he would give it to me and I would start writing. I mean, I’m always writing little things down and then I would just start to collage stuff together that worked and just start to sing along. We’d then send stuff to Bryce and to Padma [Newsome] and Bryan would be writing drum parts down without hearing anything, just starting them out on paper.” The odd name out in the above plan is that of Padma Newsome. A celebrated composer who lives in Australia, but also tours with the band, Newsome is the one behind the lovely strings, piano and other gorgeous bits that give Boxer its invisible weight. Although he plays with Bryce Dessner in the instrumental band Clogs, Newsome is considered the unofficial sixth member of the National. As Berninger clarifies, "This is the first record where he’s been more involved in the beginning. He was working on things earlier in the process then he’d ever had before. He’s definitely the sixth member. He’s writing a lot of things and he’ll write things reacting to the little sketches we send him, other times he’s writing things on his own, pushing things in other directions.”

The National also benefit from living in a particularly awesome neighbourhood. Another collaborator on this album was Sufjan Stevens, a neighbour in Brooklyn. Berninger admits, "It was kind of a casual thing and he did some things on some other songs we didn’t use, but he plays the grand piano in a particular way. You can especially hear him on ‘Ada,’ where his style works well for that song. So, yeah, one day we just called him up.”

The impromptu block party didn’t end there, as Berninger excitedly explains. "There’s also Marla Hansen, which is the first time we’ve ever had a female voice on our records and she’s another friend from the neighbourhood. We wanted to bring in some other colours on this one and just experiment. None of it was planned at the beginning, it was just trying a lot of different things and see what fits.”

One may worried about the fact there might be too many cooks in the kitchen, but the National like to keep things complicated and open. "It’s hard to ever have a plan when there are six of us going in different directions,” Berninger defends. "Even if we tried to start out making a certain type of record, I think it would have been impossible to get everybody to have the same ideas. I think, generally, we find accidents and surprises that way, or when you try to mix two things that are going in different directions, that’s where some of the more interesting stuff comes from.”

The final concern is whether keeping things just slightly chaotic will damage an album’s consistency. Amazingly, Boxer flows perfectly, as it keeps the listener rapt throughout its dream-like tales and uncluttered indie rock. Indeed, as the curtain rose on the album, this outcome was not even anticipated by the band. As Berninger reflects, "We knew there were certain colours that we were working with, but we were almost finished the record before we could actually get perspective and see the whole thing. It was something that formed on its own and it wasn’t until the end that we actually could take a look at it and listen to it that way and hear that cohesiveness to it. We were pleasantly surprised.”