The National Goes National in the New York Times Mag


Whew. It’s Monday afternoon and we’ve finally finished the exhaustive (yet exhilarating!) 4,500+ word profile on Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ohio band The National in The New York Times Magazine. The Ditmas Park resident troubadours — whom we last encountered during a secret show at local venue The Bell House — have been live streaming their new album High Violet via the Times website before the official release on May 11. Writer Nicholas Dawidoff palled around with the five band members in January as they put the final touches on the album, fiddling with one track called “Lemonworld” and poking fun at lead singer Matt Berninger. A National primer, after the jump.

Setting the scene:

The day was past noon, but the band had been up working so late the night before that they all had early-morning eyes. The air smelled of unchanged flannel shirts and uneasy expectations. [Ed. note: HA!]

On nicknaming Berninger:

Matt has accumulated a flock of snide nicknames from his band mates, including the Dark Lord, the Naysayer, Mumbleberry Pie, Mr. Knee Jerk, Mr. Sony Headphones and the Echo Chamber — the last for the coterie of musically astute persons whom Matt frequently invokes supporting his opinion of whatever song they are arguing about.

On the lead vocals:

It’s distinctive music born of an apparent limitation — Matt’s voice. His is a classic baritone with a resonant, melancholy timbre, but it lacks range and tonal variation; Matt often half-talks his vocals in the style of singers like Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Over the years, the band’s solution has been to create shifting instrumental shapes and colors just beneath the vocals. All the intersecting sounds mesh with Matt’s voice in a way that seems to deepen his texture, and with repeated listening the songs achieve emotional intensity.

On Berninger’s wife, Carin Besser, a former editor at The New Yorker:

Matt and his wife, Carin, not yet married, were breaking up and getting back together frequently, “trying to resist the person you might end up with,” as Carin puts it. One night, Carin accused Matt of being in search of an “out–of-this-world person who’s a pure fantasy,” by telling him he was going through life “looking for astronauts,” which soon became the title of a song.

On the Dessner brothers, Bryce and Aaron, who play guitar in The National:

As twins with bowl haircuts, Aaron and Bryce shared one baseball-card collection, played all games side by side and slept in a room with identical pairs of fixtures and furniture pieces. Every morning, Bryce would take a shower and then leave the water on for Aaron to follow. They were so close, always understanding each other in such a primary way, that when they communicated, other people couldn’t always make out what they were saying. (In the band, this is known as the twins’ “pillow talk.”) Today, though they live in separate Brooklyn houses, their bond remains so intense that when they return to Ohio with their girlfriends, they would rather the four of them sleep (platonically) in their two childhood beds than take advantage of the guest room.

On High Violet:

It’s the world according to a man who isn’t getting any younger, mostly wants to be a good father and husband and employee and friend — and might be happy, but for all that resistance he thinks he keeps tamped in his own head. He used to be the Great White Hope, the hero of his own box-size living room. Now he’s got a kid on his shoulder, lives on coffee and cut flowers while thinking about clearing out of the Silver City and going back to Ohio where life is simpler — until you get there and remember why you left.

And what do the readers say? The detractors upbraid The National as “repetitive,” and “just another guitar-vamping slow band,” while the self-professed huge fans praise the band’s “incredible subtlety and complexity of sound,” arguing that the “lyrics are poetry.” Among our own acquaintances, it’s a similar split: friends held rapt by the live show, friends who meticulously track down album leaks and rare B-sides, and friends who find The National’s mumbling baritone and “shimmery” instrumentation both emo and depressive.

Take a little listen to High Violet and let us know what your thoughts on all things National: legit Next Big Thing or one of a million not-so-special bands from Brooklyn?

(Oh, and: they’ve also got a blog.)