THE NATIONAL Alligator (Beggars Banquet)
On their third full-length album American quintet The National make dusty, magical music, of a kind that the Tindersticks might have had they been trapped in New York rather than Nottingham. They play a kind of fatalistic, Eeyore Americana with every other line a quotable, finely-polished gem, through which tumble images of post-Fight Club gender re-evaluation. These songs are staffed by needy, dependent, insecure men; maybe the bands unusual composition, which includes two pairs of brothers, has enabled the lyricists (all songs being credited to the whole group) to open up in a way that eludes other, less close-knit combos.
As evidence, consider Karen, where clouds of faltering and foreboding - I wouldnt go out alone into America Believe me you just havent seen my good side yet break almost imperceptibly over the chorus. The astonishing shimmer of Looking For Astronauts urges Throw from your window your record collection (excluding this one, presumably!), whilst the rowdy backing vocals behind Secret Meeting are typical of the off-kilter touches that pepper the album. Often the listener is plonked right in the centre of the plot the sublime Daughters Of The Soho Riots seems to begin with a prison break, but these amorphous narratives rarely confirm your suspicions.
Baby, Well Be Fine is another, perhaps the, towering peak, during which a desperate craving for acceptance feels like the ache of an old war wound, buried deep within the song: All night I lay on my pillow and pray/For my boss to stop me in the hallway/Lay my head on his shoulder and say/Son, Ive been hearing good things I put on an argyle sweater and put on a smile/I dont know how to do this. That an album so nakedly confessional could emerge from a country with a culture so driven by its desire for success and conformity makes Alligator all the more remarkable.
Friend Of Mine sounds increasingly like a missing person ad set to music - Hey, where the hell are you/You dont call me back, John Im getting nervous/No sign of a friend of mine/Red hair and blue eyes I got two sets of headphones, I miss you like hell the insistent drum pattern hammering out some kind of racing heartbeat Morse code. Theres a rare moment of bravado on All The Wine, the one time that one of the albums protagonists sounds unshakeably certain of him - or, not implausibly her self, although both title and lyrics suggest that such swagger might be alcohol-derived, Big wet bottle in my fist, big wet rose in my teeth/Im a perfect piece of ass/Like every Californian/So tall I take over the street, with highbeams shining on my back/A wingspan unbelievable/Im a festival, Im a parade.
The frantic yammering of Abel is arguably not as successful as the measured introspection displayed elsewhere, but the slow-motion woodwind and string section slide into The Geese Of Beverly Road is fine compensation. Its less a song than a hazy, optimistic daydream: Well run like were awesome/We wont be disappointed/Well fight like girls for our place at the table/Our room on the floor. City Middle finds the narrator dependent on the recurring figure of Karen again perhaps to the lyricist a muse/girlfriend figure as Kathleen was/is to Mark Eitzel. Finally, Mr. November proffers thundering bravura in the face of pre-gig jitters, ending the album with a pumped-up flourish: This is nothing like it was in my room/In my best clothes The English are waiting/And I dont know what to do.
Maybe Alligator fumbles slightly during its second side, and the British vinyl pressing is rather foggier than I might have hoped for, but despite these caveats it achieves more than almost any other release Ive heard this year. So far for me only the latest efforts by Mercury Rev and The Go-Betweens threaten its pole position on the pedestal.
THE NATIONAL Boxer (Beggars Banquet)
Oh, but this one takes time. Following the runaway success (all things being relative) of their breakthrough third album Alligator, which shone a flickering torch on the more troubled, dustier corners of its creators collective psyche, Boxer initially seemed like a diluted rehash of the same themes and melodies. Had they done a Tindersticks still the band name most likely to be invoked when a single word summary of this Brooklyn-based quintets sound is required and become condemned to forever re-release essentially the same record?
Happily, no. Boxer really does demand acclimatisation and effort, but eventually all these dozen songs grow strong enough to stand on their own, acquiring a sense of fully-formed completeness. As with its predecessor, though, the album is hardly enhanced by its somewhat vague, undistinguished production and pressing
Brainy and Squalor Victoria are arranged with the drums at their centre, mixed way up, the other instrumentation whirling and circling, almost relegated to a supporting role; theyre like x-rays of songs. Slow Show delicately exposes human frailties and innermost desires, Racing Like A Pro seems to be (but almost certainly isnt) about a social climbing career woman, and Gospel makes a gently festive closer, the albums closest approach to upbeat.
Totally unshowy, it seems appropriate that I only discovered Sufjan Stevens' piano guest spots on two tracks by reading the small print. Like Lows latest, Boxer is one of those quietly consistent works that doesnt batter you into submission with its brilliance, but quietly gets its hooks into your head.