“You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you / I missed you, for 29 years.”
The first time I was aware of The National was in 2007 when I was dragged to Koko, shattered and ill on a weeknight, to see them perform their newest album Boxer. I don’t think I’ve ever suffered through a gig less interested or more grumpy. How ungrateful. I hadn’t listened to anything by them before but for some reason my boyfriend had bought tickets so I assumed, having almost identical musical tastes, that I’d like them. “What a load of drony nonsense, every song sounds the same, I can’t even hear what he’s singing – is he autistic?”.
Almost ten years on, I count Boxer as one of my favourite albums. It took a long while of hearing it played in our flat repeatedly before realising how good they were. The intricacies of the intelligent drumming (which I now doubt I’ll ever bore of), the skilfull piano and self-loathing tinged stream-of-consciousness style lyrics all slowly began to reveal themselves to me. The production is spot-on, those drums are unusually but rightfully brought out high in the mix and the vocals a notch below ‘centre stage’. There are no hierarchical battles – every instrument and part is there because it adds something, showing that conversely, like all good musicians, they have an instinctive understanding of knowing when not to play. Something I greatly admire and which shows sophistication and respect within the dynamic of a band. The incredibly occasional tambourine on Slow Show is a perfect lesson in restraint.
Matt Berninger seems almost an accidental frontman, mesmerisingly awkward and introverted. Though simultaneously and by what would seem a contrast, he comes alive on stage with incredible intensity, managing his way far out into the audience by the end of the set which has become a trademark. Back when I first saw him, I couldn’t work him out. Perhaps I was too tired as his performance almost requires something from you. The lacking there was on my part. Perhaps unusually I still don’t listen too closely to his lyrics. My experience tends to be an overall sense that there is much fucking up on his part, mixed with disaffection punctuated by a few beautiful or funny well observed lines I know by heart. Which means when I allow myself, I can still notice something new if I want to with each listen.
Despite many releases including the excellent follow up High Violet (2010), I find myself returning to Boxer in a way I don’t with the others. A good album can become like an old friend, and with the polyrhythmic piano intro of Fake Empire I get that Pavlovian comforting knowledge that for the next 45 mins I’m in safe hands.