Wednesday, February 06, 2008



The National

Like Bono and Mick, rock music has a rich history of natural front men strutting around the world with skyscraper-sized messiah complexes. Matt Berninger, singer of the National, is definitely not one of them. The tall and restrained 32-year-old stands slightly hunched on the stage in New York’s Bowery Ballroom, the first of five sold-out nights at this venue, wrapping both hands firmly around the microphone pulling it closely to his face. At times, it even looks as if Berninger is sharing an intimate moment with his mic, eyes closed, and head tilted sideways. When I later ask Berninger where he goes during these instances—which, incidentally, come often—he jokes that he’s probably too intoxicated during the show to even remember.

“Truth is, I’m not entirely comfortable with being the guy in the front,” Berninger admits in-between sips of his white wine spritzer. “But I’ve also become comfortable with being uncomfortable. I’m only the guy singing the songs because when we started the band, I didn’t know how to play an instrument.” This is not to say that Berninger’s smoky croon is the default vocal. On the contrary, his soulful baritone is piercingly evocative, a lamenting delivery heaving with regret and depth. Throughout the National’s catalogue, Berninger inhabits the songs not quite like a singer. More like a conduit for the lyrics.

But then there are the screaming fits. Sometimes Berninger employs a growl so furious and unrestrained that it’s quite exhilarating, vicariously cathartic. At one point during the song “Abel” a room full of 500 devotees scream along with him, “my mind’s not right!” Unwittingly, the show has reverted into a spontaneous group therapy. “Those are strange moments,” he admits. “Sometimes I think I hear them singing. But then I think I’m deluding myself and imagining that I’m hearing them. So in the end, I can’t even really tell.”

After four albums, including this year’s wondrous Boxer, tireless touring and an ostensibly permanent underrated tattoo inked on the band member’s respective foreheads, how did the National finally get to the point where the Brooklyn quartet is selling out their tour, receiving uncompromising adulation, and attracting the sort of fan that willingly sings along to self-deprecation? “I have no idea,” says guitarist Aaron Dessner, who along with his brother Bryce and second set of brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf completes the line-up. “I remember being shocked at how people were eventually so enthusiastic about [2005’s] Alligator because, initially, with the exception of some British journalists, no one really cared about it.” But if there’s one thing the National excels at, it’s producing and releasing slow-burning, endlessly rewarding growers. There’s nothing instantaneous or immediately gratifying about the band’s elegant rock music. It’s not show-offy or trendy, nor is it garage-rock, post-rock, post-punk, or angular. Boxer’s refined hooks are subtle, building and burrowing with an unsettling composure. “We don’t necessarily want to be a “grower” band,” Berninger explains. “I always want to listen to something right away and enjoy it. Generally, though, those records that stay with me for a long time are the ones I had to spend the most time with. The easy songs get on your nerves after twenty listens and, I guess, as a band, we’re trying to avoid getting on people’s nerves. Seems like a reasonable strategy, right?”

While the compositions are certainly noteworthy enough, critics and enthusiasts cite Berninger’s elegiac and compassionate lyrics as the National’s potent elixir. Unrepentantly sweet lines like “You know I dreamed about you for twenty-nine years before I saw you” are coupled with truly honest moments of self-doubt like, “Can I get a minute of not being nervous and not thinking of my d***, My leg is sparkles, my leg is pins.”
“They’re not all love songs,” Berninger clarifies. “Sure, they’re definitely romantic songs but it’s not about love per se, it’s about the intricacies and complexities of relationships. Some of the songs on the older records emote frustration and desperation but this time, on Boxer, there’s more tenderness but not in a saccharine way.”

Despite the insightful expression of the prose, Berninger insists that he’s not a natural writer. In fact, he never writes poetry, won’t attempt to write fiction, and even has some difficultly writing emails. “When I was younger, I wasn’t a nerd but I wasn’t popular either. And I wasn’t depressed but I was pretty insecure. So, you don’t talk to girls. You’re not cool. You write a song because that’s what you wanted to say to a girl. I think that’s where my songwriting perspective comes from. I have the ability to work on and develop what I want to say to people, how to express myself. I write lyrics to channel my insecurities.” Berninger then takes a moment and realizes the humanity of his reveal.
“It’s not very rock star,” he says, “But it’s the truth.”

Video for "Mistaken For Strangers"

Video for "Apartment Story"