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The National Came Into Their Own 15 Years Ago on Alligator

on April 07, 2020, 12:00am

I remember the first and only time I saw The National. Having grown up in the Midwest, I wasn’t used to the Texas heat, and neither were The National, apparently. Despite being headliners, the Cincinnati quintet were scheduled for a late afternoon slot and performed for only an hour. Vocalist Matt Berninger, screaming toward the end of “Graceless”, was purely red in the face, looking as if he were about to pass out from a combination of heat exhaustion and self-exertion. I recall thinking what a strange setting it was for a band like The National to perform in. Their music is characteristically somber, with Berninger sulking his lines more than singing them. They’re not exactly radio-friendly, either. But here they were, headlining yet another festival while touring behind their seventh LP, Sleep Well Beast, their cold music starkly contrasting the hot temperature.

How did they get here, exactly? A grim indie-rock outfit, consisting of middle-aged men, performing for thousands of festival attendees is an unlikely scenario today. The National’s rise to (indie) stardom wasn’t an immediate incident. It was a slow, gradual process of people realizing, with each of their albums, what a powerhouse this band is. They’ve seldom released a bad record in their entire career, which now spans more than two decades. Through every release, The National have demonstrated they’re as timeless a band as ever, and indie-rock fans have come to revere them as luminaries in the genre. Although they released records in 2001 and 2003, their self-titled LP and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, respectively, it was with Alligator, their first truly brilliant effort, in which The National established an identity and came into their own.

Alligator, now 15 years old, set the stage for the Ohio-turned-New York indie rockers. At the time of the record’s release, The National were playing bars and clubs, which subsequently turned into festival grounds and arenas on their most recent tours. It was the catalyst to The National’s festival-headliner status, and though some fans may argue that Boxer was such a catalyst, Boxer wouldn’t exist without its predecessor. Even Boxer’s album art is a photograph of the band performing “The Geese of Beverly Road” at producer Peter Katis’ wedding, likely an unintentional illustration of Alligator’s influence on its successor.

Alligator is the first record on which The National are The National. Their first two records show a glimmer of potential, but it sounds like they’re reining themselves in a bit, holding back, adopting various sounds and figuring out what sticks. That’s not to say that these albums aren’t worth listening to. They’re vital pieces of history in the grander context of The National, but there’s nothing authoritative about them. On Alligator, The National established themselves, a band known for Berninger’s brooding baritone, guitarist Aaron Dessner’s swirling compositions, and lyrics that slowly unveil their clever metaphors with each repeated listen.

Many of Berninger’s most memorable lyrics come from Alligator. Opener “Secret Meeting” tells a narrative of wanting to become invisible, particularly to avoid encountering someone Berninger doesn’t want to talk to. “Didn’t anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?” he questions over Bryan Devendorf’s sparse drum pattern. Berninger, upon running into this person, feigns an apology over the same drumbeat: “I’m sorry I missed you/ I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain.” The following track, “Karen”, features a line that’s nearly impossible to ignore: “It’s a common fetish for a doting man/ To ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand.” Berninger has always had a proclivity for infusing despondency with wry humor. The shocking nature of this lyric is only partly because of its words. Most of it is because of Berninger’s unenthused delivery. Also, hearing Berninger sing, “I’m a perfect piece of ass” on “All the Wine” for the first time is an indelible memory for any fan of The National.

Lyrics aside, Aaron Dessner’s instrumentation is impeccable, too. The finger-picked, melodic lead guitar of “Looking for Astronauts” complements Bryan Devendorf’s steady, percussive backdrop. “Friend of Mine” features subtle dynamic shifts, highlighting Berninger’s vocals in its breaks while introducing the rest of the band back in just moments later. “Daughters of the Soho Riots” is still among the best of the band’s catalog. Bryce Dessner’s hushed acoustic guitar interlocks with Devendorf’s faint, mallet-stricken toms, with Berninger singing about fading into a large crowd with a loved one.

Alligator also marks the first time where The National, an overall quiet band for the most part, decided to get loud. On their first two albums, there was scarcely a moment when Berninger would raise his voice above a sigh. Alligator contains several moments where he outright screams, to such a degree where you can visualize him, visceral and unrestrained. “Abel,” the fastest track on the record, showcases Berninger at his most untamed, repeatedly yelling, “My mind’s not right,” over distorted guitars and roaring drums. “Lit Up”, also set to a quick pace, breaks into a drumbeat reminiscent of something off High Violet with 16th-note guitar strumming. These louder songs underline The National’s versatility, how they were capable of writing more than only one kind of song. For every “Daughters of the Soho Riots” or “The Geese of Beverly Road”, there’s an “Abel” or “Lit Up”. But, it’s not possible to discuss The National at their loudest moments without also talking about the closing track, “Mr. November”.

“Mr. November” remains the only track from Alligator that The National still consistently perform live. Similar to its positioning on the record, they always play it toward the end of their set. It’s as if The National’s relatively quiet sound is maintained until the end of their live show, so Berninger can dedicate himself fully to bellowing, “I won’t fuck us over/ I’m Mr. November” night after night. The rest of the band matches this energy, too. Bryan Devendorf plays a seemingly endless drum fill in the song’s catharsis of a chorus, and the Dessner brothers’ rapid-fire, chaotic guitars follow suit.

When I think back to that time I saw The National at that festival, I remember watching them play through “Mr. November”, contemplating how Alligator set off a chain reaction that, strangely, landed them this slot as a headliner. Headliner status typically implies a sense of mass, commercial appeal, and neither Alligator nor The National as a whole signify that. In the documentary Mistaken for Strangers, when Berninger’s brother, and the film’s director, Tom, asks him how famous he considers himself to be, he responds, “not very famous,” gesturing to a small gap between his thumb and forefinger, “a small amount of fame.” The scene takes place directly after Berninger, on tour for High Violet, is approached by several groups of fans in London.

I also thought about this scene while watching them in the massive festival crowd. A few albums after High Violet, here The National were, headlining Austin City Limits, one of the country’s major festivals, playing a song from Alligator. Maybe The National have “a small amount of fame” in the grander landscape of popular music, but The National will continue to be one of the definitive bands in indie rock. They were still lesser known when Alligator released, but from this point forward, the world took note.