Getting Closer to the Truth With the National

The National's Bryce Dessner, from left, Matt Berninger, Bryan Devendorf, Aaron Dessner and Scott Devendorf are less musically morose on
The National's Bryce Dessner, from left, Matt Berninger, Bryan Devendorf, Aaron Dessner and Scott Devendorf are less musically morose on "Boxer." (By Abbey Drucker)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 2007

The National's first buzz album was called "Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers," and its breakthrough album, 2005's "Alligator," made a bunch of year-end best-ofs at least partly because of what music Web site Pitchfork Media described as the band's ability to inject "American anxiety with a somewhat European elegance." Entertainment Weekly suggested that "the twilit melodies and Matt Berninger's gossamer vocals will haunt your troubled dreams."

That "gossamer vocals" line may be a bit misleading, unless you think of Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Mark Eitzel or Tom Waits as "ethereal" vocalists whose style is characterized by "unusual lightness and delicacy" (so much for dictionary definitions). Berninger's sober, detached, low-leaning baritone does have a similar gravitas (albeit less of the ruined/roughened edges) and a healthy portion of the National songbook does favor somber, occasionally self-pitying meditations on the dark side of romance. As The Washington Post's J. Freedom du Lac put it, the National makes "forlorn chamber-pop that seems particularly well suited for late-night listening in a darkened room after several glasses of syrah."

Bad-mood music, perhaps?

For sure, there's some of that on the Brooklyn-based quintet's latest album, "Boxer," which has been widely praised, though some critics have noted how apparent it is that Berninger has been in a healthy romantic relationship since "Alligator."

" 'Boxer' has different types of songs on it because of that," Berninger says. "The songs about relationships are more about how to compromise, how to hold onto something good and how to find that, whereas 'Alligator' had songs about knowing something is gone or just pining over something that's gone. There's more bitterness, I think, on 'Alligator,' much less on 'Boxer' because of the fact that I've been in a relationship that's been good for a really long time.

"Funny, I never thought of our other records as being dark," he adds. "There are moments of darkness and bitterness and desperation, but I thought 'Alligator' and the record before that had a lot of lighthearted optimism. When you put our band next to 20 other contemporary bands, we might have more dark areas on our records than they do, but I've always thought of it as a pretty healthy balance, a mixture of emotions and themes on all the records. I'm happy that that sort of 'sad sack/morose' tag that we've had hanging on us for a while is starting to fall off."

And, Berninger acknowledges, the often doleful timbre of his voice clearly colors perceptions of what he's singing about. "Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits often are described as 'sad singers,' but those guys are also some of the funniest singers with an honest optimism," he says. "There is something in the register of my voice that paints it in a blue room, I guess."

That the National -- Berninger and two pairs of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf -- is a band at all is somewhat surprising. All five members hail from Ohio, where Berninger and guitarist Scott Devendorf were in a band called Nancy while at the University of Cincinnati.

"[Drummer] Bryan Devendorf was in a different band called Project Nim with [guitarists] Aaron and Bryce," Berninger says. "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."

Music then was a lark, songs casually written and taped on four-track and eight-track recorders. "It was definitely a novelty for ourselves, something we could send to our friends," Berninger explains. "When we had 10 or 15 sketches of songs that we really liked, then we thought we should at least go in the studio and put this on a record just to say we did. But the idea of ending up where we're sleeping on a bus and touring around Europe for months at a time or being on television -- that kind of band -- that was far beyond what we envisioned," he says with a chuckle.

In 2001, the Dessner brothers and pal Alec Hanley Bemis formed Brassland Records and released the eponymous "The National," and the band began gigging around New York while holding onto day jobs.

"I was a creative director at a new media company; occasionally, when we're home for a long time, which is not very often anymore, I go in and freelance there," Berninger says. "Scott's also a designer, Brian worked at a publishing house called Soho Press. Aaron was in business development at a big media company. Bryce is the only one who was a full-time musician -- teaching , touring around clubs, playing with a lot of different groups. He's the one who's got the musical pedigree; the rest of us are not as trained."

Except through experience: By 2005, the bandmates were able to quit their jobs and sign with a major indie, Beggars Banquet, which released "Alligator." That album took a while to catch on, so much so that critics started describing it as "a grower." According to Berninger, "Boxer" was slow into the ring partly because the band was exhausted from touring behind its breakthrough album. "It took us some time to refresh, to get back to normal life for a while and have things to write about. We took time because we had all these things we wanted to do just right. And we didn't want to repeat ourselves, didn't want to rush out a record that was going to be capitalizing on the slow but eventual success of 'Alligator.' "

The National was also flexing its creative muscle through intricate arrangements using strings, horns and woodwinds, with guest keyboardists Thomas Bartlett (a.k.a. Doveman) and Sufjan Stevens (Bryce Dessner plays in Stevens's touring band). "Boxer" is also a showcase for Padma Newsome, who contributes strings, keyboards, arrangements and odd instrumental flourishes. "We've been playing with him since 'Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers,' and he's all over the 'Cherry Tree' EP and 'Alligator,' " Berninger says.

"Bryce comes from a classical background, and he and Aaron play piano and we've always been bringing in elements beyond your standard guitar, bass and drum rock-band thing," he adds. " 'Boxer,' I think, is the first time we've tried to incorporate those elements less as ornamentation and icing on the cake and more as their own voice to take a song in a different direction, as opposed to supporting a chorus. We weren't just piling on orchestrations for the effect of making it bigger."

The brother teams collaborate on the music, but the lyrics are all Berninger's. Often elusive and ambiguous, they are the stuff of interpretation, though while growing up, their creator doesn't remember "sitting and trying to figure out exactly what something meant."

"When I was in eighth grade," he says, "the Smiths were the first time I really started 'listening' to a band, trying to connect with more than just music and entertainment, but I don't remember sitting and trying to figure out exactly what Morrissey was talking about in 'Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others.' In truth, in terms of analysis, there are some parts of our own songs that I'm not sure what they're about. One of the nicest things is that people are trying to figure out exactly what something means, when the truth is, often their interpretations are as interesting, or sometimes more interesting, than whatever sparked it in the first place.

"That's one of the appeals I've always loved about music, like Guided by Voices or Leonard Cohen -- people that never spell out a direct message, because, really, that's kind of boring. It's the blurry things that allow you to get inside a song, when it's not spoken from a podium, it's just sort of overheard in bits and pieces. The stuff that's a little more abstract or oblique is often the stuff you can connect to more, and over and over again. When I'm writing the lyrics, I'm usually trying to put the things in the songs that just interest me, and often it just seems right; it doesn't mean anything literally. Often the thing that's just left of being specific is closest to the truth."

Grower vs. shower: A lot of albums are described as growers, but the word seems overly attached to the National: A recent Google search of "album" and "grower" yielded 274,000 results; adding "The National" netted 54,000 results, though Matt Berninger laughs at the suggestion that "Boxer's" out-of-the-box success makes it a "shower," not a "grower." "We used to think [grower] meant an album you're not going to like at first but maybe you'll like later, which we never took as a positive thing. But I can understand -- most of our records don't have immediate, catchy pop songs, not that we try to avoid that. We do try to write those kinds of songs, but they never work out for us. We take a long time to write, and the songs that stick are usually not the ones that at first we like the most. After listening to the stuff we're working on over and over, what usually sticks for us wasn't the most immediate, so it makes sense that's sometimes the way people would experience the record."

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