Since making their debut in 2001 with their self-titled album, The National have slowly but surely become purveyors of sad-rock. Almost 20 years later, the band have introduced their eighth studio album I Am Easy To Find into the world, prompting an exploration into their sonic progression. As is often the case with bands and artists who subscribe to a particular sound, The National are often underrated and their records are consistently – and condescendingly – dubbed ‘growers’. To the contrary, here is an examination of the band’s diverse catalogue.
9) The National (2001)
The National’s self-titled debut feels restrained at times and while the album is far from lacklustre, tracks like ‘Beautiful Head’ and ‘The Perfect Song’ feel flat when considering the band’s subsequent material. Perhaps it’s simply the curse of such a strong evolution across the past 18 years that revisiting The National feels a little bland in comparison to the albums which followed. In saying that, the jaunty melody of ‘Cold Girl Fever’ and echoing spoken-word elegy of ‘29 Years’, whose lyrics would later inform Boxer’s ‘Slow Show’, still stand strong amid the band’s catalogue.
8) Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003)
Perhaps the most diverse body of work in The National’s arsenal, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers flickers between fragile lovelorn ballads and volatile rock. One minute, violins are swelling against a dainty melody and the next frontman Matt Berninger is screaming “Dear we better get a drink in you/Before you start to bore us”. The first album in which the band worked with Peter Katis, who would produce their next albums Alligator and Boxer, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers is a mixed bag and a prominent rebuttal against claims The National are a one-trick pony.
7) Cherry Tree – EP (2004)
With only seven tracks in total, one of which is a live rendition of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers’ ‘Murder Me Rachael’, Cherry Tree is short and bittersweet. The shimmering fingerpicking of ‘Wasp Nest’, arrogant charm of ‘All The Wine’ – “I’m put together beautifully/Big wet bottle in my fist/Big wet rose in my teeth/I’m a perfect piece of ass” – and impossibly low mumble of Berninger’s baritone pitted against violins in ‘All Dolled-Up In Straps’; Cherry Tree is fleeting yet satisfying.
6) High Violet (2010)
Between the soft electric crackles of ‘Terrible Love’, rippling chords on ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ and ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’’ decadent strings, High Violet is ornate and experimental without straying too far from the sound The National are known and loved for. Appearances from Justin Vernon and Sufjan Stevens are sprinkled amongst the tracks while the meekest of details – Berninger’s rhythmic “do do do do do” in ‘Lemonworld’ – add inconspicuous flare to the album. Simplistic yet never simple and coloured with nuance and subtlety, High Violet is quintessential The National.
5) Sleep Well Beast (2017)
Drenched in darkness and rich synth soundscapes, Sleep Well Beast serves as a step away from The National’s minimalistic indie-rock sound. Drum programming and shrill guitar effects punctuate the record, adding a level of poignancy to the album’s melancholy. Backing vocals from Justin Vernon and Lisa Hannigan do well to stoke the charred remnants of broken relationships about which Berninger croons. While Berninger’s wife Carin Besser has long contributed to The National’s lyrics, the former New Yorker fiction editor was heavily involved in the writing process of Sleep Well Beast, perhaps resulting in lines like ‘Carin at the Liquor Store’’s “I was walking around like I was the one who found dead John Cheever”.
4) I Am Easy To Find (2019)
The National’s latest offering I Am Easy To Find is a striking contrast to the band’s past work, centring the focus on female vocals and elevating the understated harmonies we’ve seen in the band’s past works into fully fledged duets. Sonically, the record follows on from Sleep Well Beast in that it heavily revolves around synthesisers and atmospheric, all-encompassing melodies. Longtime Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey, Bryce Dessner’s wife Pauline de Lassus, Sharon Van Etten and Brooklyn Youth Chorus are amongst those who make vocal appearances across the album, steering The National away from the masculine narratives, and sounds, of albums past.
3) Alligator (2005)
A band like The National, whose entire being is entrenched in self-absorption and neuroses, can easily become overbearing or, worse yet, boring. But Berninger’s quips and dark, self-deprecating humour invite the listener into his world rather than pushing them away. ‘Lit Up’ and ‘Abel’ are anthemic belters while ‘Daughters of the Soho Riots’ and ‘Van Jester’ are tastefully subdued. From ‘Mr. November’’s “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders” to ‘Karen’’s “This isn’t me, you just haven’t seen my good side yet”, Alligator is brimming with desperation, regret and a tinge of satire.
2) Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
Aurally, Trouble Will Find Me is as sterile as its pristine black and white cover. The production is strikingly clean, giving weight to every strum and beat. Bryan Devendorf’s restrained drumming and Aaron Dessner’s licks of soft keys serve as the catalyst for warm and familiar melodies that manage to evoke a sense of hope despite crestfallen lyrics such as ‘Demons’’ “When I walk into a room/I do not light it up/Fuck”. The album straddles a line between utter despair and self-mockery, as illustrated by lines like ‘Pink Rabbits’’ “You didn’t see me I was falling apart/I was a television version of a person with a broken heart”.
1) Boxer (2007)
Boxer is an unequivocal frontrunner in The National’s discography; it’s intense yet hopeful, precise yet dramatic and ultimately a visceral gut punch. Introducing horn sections into the fold in ‘Fake Empire’ and ‘Ada’ while creating room for Devendorf’s drumming to act as powering force of the record, Boxer’s sound is bold and beautifully full. Not only does the album see the band producing some of their strongest melodic arrangements, the songwriting on Boxer is unparalleled – take ‘Slow Show’’s desperation to please a lover, for example: “I wanna hurry home to you/Put on a slow, dumb show for you and crack you up/So you can put a blue ribbon on my brain/God, I’m very, very frightened, I’ll overdo it.”