By Merlijn Veltman
This is the first article of many in a series describing the roots, origins, influences and the growth of bands that have taken the alternative music scene by storm. The first band discussed will be The National, known for its enigmatic singer, dreamy, but robust guitar sound and its perplexing blend of alt-country, post-rock and dark, melancholic roots-oriented pop.
Somewhere in the lush fields and glowing hills of Ohio, there is a metropolitan city named Cincinnati. This lively city lights up the darkest of nights with her massive and fantastically lit skyscrapers. Unlike these skyscrapers, however, Matt Berninger and Scott Devensdorf did not reach for the skies when they first formed their band. Instead, they did not have any high expectations, other than making music and thoroughly, ruthlessly enjoying it. Both Berninger and Devensdorf participated in the University of Cincinnati College of Graphic Design program, where they met Mike Brewer, Casey Reas and Jeff Salem. Together they formed a try-out version of The National, which they aptly named Nancy. Alas, after five years of making lo-fi garage the band fell apart due to the move of all of the band members, except for Brewer, to Brooklyn.
Faith had it that at the same time, Bryan Devensdorf (Scott’s brother) and Bryce and Aaron Dessinger, the characteristic twin brothers that both play the guitar in The National, moved to Brooklyn at the same time to join Berninger and Devensdorf in their musical creation, which finally gave rise to the band. Berninger states the following about this turbulent period: ‘… Scott and I were real close, best friends, all through college, but I hadn’t met the other guys until Scott and I had been in New York for four years, when we started pulling the band together. Scott called his brother, and his brother called Aaron and Bryce.’
They released several albums, of which the self-titled The National was the first. One of the songs on this album, 29 Years, seemed very experimental but beautiful in its own distinct way. The lyrics that Matt Berninger invents for the songs of The National, however, are the most incredible, mysterious and hard-to-decipher part of the entire atmosphere of the album. In 29 Years, for example, the main lyrical line is comprised of the beautiful phrase: ‘You know, I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you. You know I dreamed about you, I missed you for 29 years.’ These lyrics are defining what The National is all about – beautiful music that always has a melancholic undertone thanks to the soft, raw baritone of Berninger. Furthermore, these lyrics were once again used in the song Slow Show of the album Boxer.
Throughout the remainder of their oeuvre, which is comprised of four more albums, The National keeps redefining itself, changing its style continuously. Their first album was clearly recorded by themselves, in the small-time producing studio set up by the Dessinger twins. That, however, was part of its charm. The second album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, was recorded in collaboration with different, professional producers Paul Heck and Peter Katis, and thus demonstrates a dedicated, qualitatively better sound than their previous record.
After that, The National slowly started to change its course, moving away from the Americana sound that they had used in such an illustrious way on their first two albums. On the third album, Alligator, the last throes of that particular sound were heard but also, coming from very far away, the faint whisper of emerging compositions and melodies and the future of the band. Songs like Baby We’ll Be Fine are perfect examples of the transition between the old Americana sound and the new style of music that The National would hone and develop in the following album: Boxer.
Boxer was to become the album that would make The National famous. With songs like Apartment Story and Mistaken For Strangers the band began to tag along with the big fish in the music world. In 2007 the band performed Apartment Story on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. In 2008 they opened for R.E.M. during their promotional tour for the album Accelerate. In short: the name ‘The National’ was on everyone’s lips and when they announced the coming of a new album, High Violet, every music-related magazine voiced its high expectations.
With the coming of High Violet, the band literally took the world stage when they performed Afraid of Everyone at David Letterman’s Late Show. The entire album was critically acclaimed worldwide and the band became an instant headliner at many different festivals. High Violet is, in my personal opinion, the best album The National has created, with as high point in its oeuvre the song England, which is essentially a beautiful build up that will leave you shivering, melancholic and yet strangely at ease. It is, indeed, one of the most wondrous musical pieces ever created.
After all their major successes, The National decided to go for a more subtle sound, losing some of the robust guitar that was featured in many of the songs in High Violet. Their latest album, aptly named Trouble Will Find Me, contains many songs that are subtler, calmer and sometimes even reflect the lyric-focused songs of their first album more than they reflect High Violet.
While this album was again hailed as another pearl in the oeuvre of The National, it seems that the band has reached the highest point in their musical career with High Violet. Whether the band will ever reach the grandeur and magnificence of that spectacular album again is debatable, but hopefully they will be able to create something again that can match High Violet. However, The National is unmistakably a band that will influence music for decades to come, if not centuries.
Merlijn Veltman, Class of 2016, is a History Major from Rotterdam, the Netherlands