If you aren’t aware, the National aren’t a very lyrically happy band. In fact they aren’t even the slightest bit optimistic. In the end though, that’s what makes them so effective and amazing to listen to. For me it really is true that the music that makes the most difference in someone’s life is the music that evokes emotion, and the National are clearly one of those bands. After seeing them for the first proper time at Bonnaroo (I heard them at Lollapalooza 08 across a field) I can at least at the power the music has in a live setting, and how much inspiration I got from the increasingly dark content of the songs. Here’s a list of my ten favorite songs. As always, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy it.
10 TURTLENECK: SLEEP WELL BEAST
By the time the band got around to making “Sleep Well,” the experimentation had grown leaps beyond what we heard off the early albums. They embraced their rock side more here, as well as taking some cues from the Grateful Dead, which members had mentioned listening to during the making of this one. The song itself is loud, with a great but chaotic vocal section. With a runtime of just under three minutes, “Turtleneck” quite possibly might be the band's most in your face, rock oriented track.
9 SORROW: HIGH VIOLET
The opening line is depressing, and it’s the kind of depression that sticks with you. It reminds me so much of my high school years. For those who aren’t aware, I have stuttered all my life. It was particularly bad in high school. Taunting, fights, and depression were the notable things going on during this time. Quite frankly it was terrible. This song reminds me of that. Of the hopelessness you feel at a young age when you have little or no control over your emotions. Speaking on the music, I love that the song never fully gets going. Berninger’s vocals are always low, and with the instrumentals swaying peacefully under him, it helps make the song a cathartic, emotional release.
8 I SHOULD LIVE IN SALT: TROUBLE WILL FIND ME
So much of Berninger's vocals relay feelings of discomfort and pain that it’s hard to know when he’s trying to be romantic, or simply not dark. “I Should Live in Salt” has tons of regret filled into its spirit and energy, with Berningers trademark soft but harsh voice disowning his pain and feelings for the clarity of regret at the difficult but ultimately wrong choices that have been made.
7 GRACELESS: TROUBLE WILL FIND ME
The song starts in a rush and keeps up the pace the entire song. I imagine a person racing endlessly through a giant, unmarked drug store, trying to find the perfect pill to fix whatever ailment he needs fixing. I always wonder if the members of this band are religious, because those themes come up pretty often. Part of me thinks that yes, because so much of the allure of this band is hope in a hopeless place, and of the redemption you can find in whatever happiness you seek. The other part of me looks at it like maybe the characters in these songs resent whatever higher power is actually around, because of the pain they’ve inflicted upon them.
6 APARTMENT STORY: BOXER
Again, I have no idea what this song is about. But I know I love it. The drumming, vocals, and the guitars all blend in perfect unison. Not only are the guitars so in sync with each other that it’s ridiculous, but it makes perfect sense once you know the guitar players are brothers. For those wondering, the bassist and drummer are also brothers. The chorus of “ Stay inside til somebody finds us, do whatever the TV tells us” also clearly explains the want of a man who is both fine with being controlled by the outside world, but someone who also wants to be saved from that same world by someone who understands him. This is just my opinion, but that’s some pretty deep, impacted feelings right there.
5 LITTLE FAITH: HIGH VIOLET
Little Faith,” is a remarkable song that unfortunately is rarely played live. The chaos and thickness of the opening falls right into an almost still like orchestral piece, and Matt’s voice paints a picture of a character walking through “New York and the rain’s coming down.” It never really takes off musically the way you think it might, but that’s where the charm of the song lies. Once again the drums are on point, but the instrumentation mvp on the track really belongs to Dessner brother’s. What Aaron and Bryce do here is elevate the emotional in the musical sense while allowing Berninger and company to put forth energy that improves the track. It’s one of the better tracks on “High Violet,” and it’s well placed in the structure and order of the record.
4 MR. NOVEMBER: ALLIGATOR
So many of their songs harken back to highschool pains, and I completely understand. That is a difficult time for many of us. I completely understand the concept of having a clear idea of what is going to happen, then when the moment gets there it ends up being totally fucked. The simple, quick chorus of “I won’t fuck us over” is a chaotic entrance by a person who has absolutely no idea what is actually happening. Seeing this live, it’s rough, and tight, and emotionally draining. Berninger has said in interview that most of the character’s in his songs are just variations of what is happening in his head, so that makes the songs a little difficult to understand, but as far as fast paced National songs, this is easily the best one for my money.
3 TERRIBLE LOVE: HIGH VIOLET
The first song off the album, and it sets the pace for the rest of the record. It’s just a bad ass song that opens with a flourish of singing by Berninger and color brought to you by the remaining band members. It’s lush, and poignant, and has a lot of emotional weight to it. It’s fucking amazing. Once again, I have little idea of what it’s actually about, but this is truly a song that just stays with you, and in my case, there’s no other song by this band that resonates so much in my soul. The last rambles by Berninger of “ It takes an ocean not to break” showcase a strong person who is trying very, very hard to stay afloat in a world where it’s hard to understand. But in the end, that’s why it’s so important to stay positive. You can’t let it get you down, or you’re a goner.
2 FAKE EMPIRE: BOXER
First song I ever heard from this band, and it’s easy to see why I was drawn to it. So often in “ballads” the message is rough at the start, but gradually it brightens up. That doesn’t really happen here. The piano and the very low key guitar playing help to make the song more intimate, while still bringing in every member of the band. Not every band can do that. The horns at the end remind me of the brilliant way Neutral Milk Hotel uses horns. I don’t think the National were trying to evoke NMH in any way, but I’m just saying more bands should try to incorporate horns.in making “Fake Empire”, the National collected all the unknown sadness of our society and bottled it up, in the process making an eye opening song even more thoughtful.
1 VANDERLYLE CRYBABY GEEKS: HIGH VIOLET
For the record let me just state that High Violet is so far the best album of this band’s career. It’s basically perfect. It’s the magnum opus of this band. This song, the final and climactic anthem of this album, is as powerful as it is confusing. Music doesn’t always have to be explainable though. It’s better to let the audience decide what the song is about, and enjoy the song from their own perspective. That’s what I love about the National. They aren’t quite the Inception of the music world, but so much is unexplainable and it still works. I always think of the Katherine Dunn book “Geek Love” and how those characters are vile, unlikable, and are all just trying to geek out a decent, comfortable life surrounded by all the shit and vomit of the world in which they were created. Now it’s likely no one else has made that connection, but that’s OK, because everyone in the world draws from different events.
Landon Murray is a music connooisseur who craves sounds of all shapes and textures. He's seen over 2000 bands and looks forward to welcoming you into his world of sound,
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