Wednesday, January 11, 2006

BEST ALBUMS OF 2005, #1



The National
Alligator

About four years ago, Nick Hornby, the noted author of High Fidelity and About A Boy served as the music columnist for the New Yorker magazine (now, the superior Sasha Frere Jones fills that position more successfully. Just because you’re a good novelist makes you not a good music columnist). In January, 2001, Hornby devoted his column to a review of Radiohead’s Kid A protesting the album’s lack of immediate accessibility. Hornby said, “You have to work at albums like Kid A. You have to sit at home night after night and give yourself over to its paranoid millennial atmosphere as you try to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics…” Further on, he lamented that Kid A was an album recorded for college students with a lot of time on their hands, not for a man in his actualized adulthood faced with all-consuming concerns and worries. "Kid A demands the patience of the devoted," Hornby continued. "Both patience and devotion become scarcer commodities once you start picking up a paycheck."

Hornby was right, I thought back then. While I did appreciate the challenging heft and selfish complexity of Kid A, I was also a college student, one of the people that he so resented for the excessive time available for listening to records, for reading the linear notes, and for discussing theoretical impressions of the songs with friends.

But now, years later, I understand his heartache because I too am the person Hornby described himself to have been. I, too, have little time to invest in a record—many times, I may even dismiss the music if its too resistant to my ears or demanding of my time. I need an immediate fix. I need to be stimulated. I need gratification (am I so unlike many of you out there?). Unfortunately, this self-involved listening practice allows little room for what’s called a grower. And on the rare occasion, it’s for shame.

But first, a "grower" is a term record store clerks use when recommending an album to an unwitting shopper. It’s a record that releases continuous beauty and hidden treasures with repeated listens. I would be hard-pressed to articulate what exactly qualifies a grower but there’s always something immediately enchanting pulling you in, begging you stick around. Like a relationship that slowly develops, the grower continually gives you incentive to remain faithful. And out of all the records I received this year, none had the impact on me in the way that the National’s Alligator did. And that’s why the Brooklyn band’s third release, a grower in it's own right, is my number one album of 2005.

Alligator is a quintessential American record, a thirteen song masterpiece that captures the raw and unconfined beauty of angst, sadness, and distress. Lead singer Matt Berninger’s expressive baritone usually alternates between understanding and exhaustion, finding the unlikely vocal middle ground of Leonard Cohen and Ian Curtis. But in certain songs, though, like the thumping “Abel” and the victorious “Mr. November,” Berninger employs a growl so furious and unrestrained that it’s quite exhilarating, almost vicariously cathartic (experiencing it live is, in a word, awesome).

And while Berninger and his distinctive voice stand at the forefront of the songs, the exceptional instrumentation of Alligator warmly envelops the listener with glimmering, unpretentious rock. Alligator is drenched in grand majesty, an expertly produced record that allows every distinctive instrument to be heard without ever overwhelming. Its no wonder that rest of the band is made up of two sets of brothers (Bryce and Aaron Dessner, Bryan and Scott Devendorf)—the National’s sound reverberates organically, the intertwining notes sounding as closely connected as brothers sometimes are. The guitars echo and ripple like the calm waters of a pond disturbed by small pebbles. Even the drums hypnotize, stuttering and propelling the songs, providing them with backbone of constant movement. The first song “Secret Meeting” welcomes you with a splash of the high-hat to “the secret meeting in the basement of [Berninger’s] brain.” The album thereafter feels just like that: the disclosure of secret thoughts locked in the confines of the mind. The heartbreaking “Looking For Astronauts” commands us, without remorse, to “take all your reasons and then take them away…From your window/throw away your record collection.” Song after song, the National exemplifies a beautiful poignancy—“Daughter of the Soho Riots” and “The Geese of Beverly Road” are both gently bittersweet and affecting in the same way that a hug from a loved one feels in a time of uncertainty.

Unlike the current custom of the music listener in the downloading age, Alligator must be enjoyed in its entirety. You simply can’t download a song or two and listen to them respective of one another. The cohesive flow of this inevitable classic requires that you inhabit it from beginning to end. In this day and age of constant distraction, I know that that’s a lot to ask for. After all, we’re no longer college students with all the time in the world at our disposal, endless hours left to pontificate the grandeur of music. But if there’s one record in recent memory that begs you to reconsider your attention-deficiency, it’s the National’s Alligator. This is an endlessly rewarding album that, like whiskey, grows more potent with age. I’m sure that even Nick Hornby would have found it worth his time.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have captured exactly how I feel about this record! Well said!

10:14 AM  
Blogger Elster said...

Hey new reader - Have you ever blogged about the great Elliot Smith? If so, can you point me in the right direction? I'm curious as to your take on his music and his too short career.

12:49 PM  

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