It's a guaranteed new favorite band for anyone who identifies with the phrase Dear, you better get a drink in you before you start to bore us.
That line's from "Slipping Husband," the second track on the National's second album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. It starts as a muttered entreaty, welling from singer Matt Berninger's baritone depths, but by the third repetition, it explodes into a disgusted, bestial howl. A similar moment of throat-ripping anguish occurs in "Abel," a bedroom-trashing song that comes toward the end of the band's 2005 release, Alligator, in which Berninger, together with guitarist Aaron Dressner, kicks into a staggered frenzy, shouting over and over, My mind's not right/My mind's not right.
Moments like this don't happen very often in the National's song catalog, which consists of three full-lengths and one EP. But when they do happen, they hit like the climax of a terrible fight when the ceiling and walls constrict, the floor drops away and the person you loved yesterday has suddenly become the demonic agent of your self-destruction.
For all of this band's capacity to tear itself to shreds, though, the National more often seems to haunt the back patio of a simple, warm, suburban rock-and-roll ranch house.
Handsome and rakish in their thirties, the players including two sets of brothers, identical twins Aaron and Bryce Dressner on guitar, and Scott and Bryan Devendorff on bass and drums can make music that's just as suited to a smooth country two-step as it is to a solitary spiral into alcohol-fueled self-abandon.
The five band members grew up knowing each other and playing together in different bands in Cincinnati. In the merry Clinton '90s, each member moved to New York City on his own to pursue college or a career. For Berninger and Scott Devendorff, it was graphic design. (Their whimsical photography adorns the group's Web site, www.americanmary.com.) They all finally came together in 2000 in Brooklyn, releasing an eponymous album in August of that year. The two pairs of brothers create an audible chemistry; the band has also produced strikingly mature music throughout its six short years.
And though Brooklyn may be the indie hot spot du jour, the National stands out in an industry of trend riders for one simple reason: substance.
Easing interlocking parts into a lattice of warm chords and fingerpicking, the Dressner brothers are quite simply two bodies, four hands and one mind. Meanwhile, the Devendorff boys, in their trademark shades-and-stubble look, lay down earthy grooves, hanging back like spies ready to rip out machine guns at a nod from their leader.
Speaking of whom, Berninger comes armed in his own way, namely with an arsenal of clever, hurtful lyrics. It's a common fetish for a doting man/To ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand, he croons in "Karen," an appeal to a woman who is changing clothes and closing windows on me all the time. In "All the Wine," a glorious ode to drunken self-celebration, he says he's put together beautifully/Big wet bottle in my fist/Big wet rose in my teeth/I'm a perfect piece of ass/Like every Californian. The list of great one-liners goes on throughout a discography that will make this band memorable, if it doesn't make stars of its members.
But for now, Berninger just wants folks to lighten up.
"Often there's this big focus on the sad elements in our songs," he tells the Pitch. "Often people exaggerate that side of what we're doing, of being these sort of miserablists, which bums me out a little bit because most of the songs are sort of even in their moments of euphoria and silliness and humor and sadness."
This emphasis is not surprising, however; after all, the National does misery so well.
"It might be what people respond to," Berninger admits. "Misery loves company. Those moments in the songs might be the most moving, the most easy to associate with. It makes total sense, because I was obsessed with songwriters for the same reason Tom Waits and Nick Cave. There's just these heart-wrenching moments."
But those songwriters, he points out, "would have melodrama and their hearts on their sleeves in one moment, and then just be ridiculous and absurd and disgusting and beautiful the next."
Call it black comedy, then the knack for mixing irony with despair, for speaking to people's boundless capacity for messing up. It's fitting that Berninger cites the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a recent source of inspiration. Like Charlie Kaufman, the writer of that movie's screenplay, the National channels the confusion that pervades contemporary American life. When expressing a reluctance to go out alone into America ("Karen") or offering up a permanent piece of my medium-sized American heart ("Looking for Astronauts"), Berninger a member of a band that has come of age in post-9/11 America, remember is taking his place among the ranks of commentators on the decay of the national identity. (Leonard Cohen's declarative "Democracy is coming to the U.S.A." from 1992's "Democracy" could serve as a less subtle textbook for this crowd.)
"For some reason, in the past few years, for me, since Bush has been around, there's a self-consciousness of being an American and suddenly feeling a little disconnected from what it means to be American and feeling like the country is not my country any more," Berninger says.
"And also, we've been traveling overseas a lot and playing shows in France, and we're constantly asked political questions about the government and America's perspective on everything," he adds, implying that such situations only make him feel farther from home.
The National may be reluctant ambassadors, but the band has completed no fewer than seven extensive European tours. In the pokey Midwest, however, it's still hitting the small-venue circuit, so bring your favorite dirty lover to this gig at the Record Bar, because chances are, the two of you won't get this close to the National again.