Buzz; that intangible pheno menon that enables certain bands to catch fire and make Pitchfork writers and NME readers cream their skinny jeans;is an unpredictable and fickle force. The members of the National know this firsthand. For one of the many legs of the extensive touring the Brooklyn-based band undertook to promote its 2005 album, Alligator, the National teamed up with fellow New York indie outfit Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The National was the nominal headliner, but that was before buzz intervened. With little warning, Clap Your Hands became a scenester favourite, forcing the National into the opening slot for some of the shows. It was either that or play to a half-empty room. According to the National's guitarist, Bryce Dessner, the situation wasn't as dispiriting as it might seem to outside observers.
"Those guys are some of our closest musical friends in New York, and it was really fun. At the time it might have seemed hard on us, because we were the older, more seasoned band, and they were the new upstarts who were getting really big," Dessner says, reached on the road in Louisville, Kentucky. "There might have been a couple awkward shows where there were just way more people there to see them than us in certain markets, but I think in general it was pretty fun."
In any case, the National has little reason to complain. Alligator caught a buzz of its own, albeit a slower-building one. The disc ended up on its share of best-of-the-year lists, and its follow-up, the recently released Boxer, will surely follow suit. The band's fourth full-length album, Boxer is a collection of mostly downbeat songs highlighted by the soft baritone crooning of singer-lyricist Matt Berninger. The frontman's finely drawn observations of adult-angst dramas played out in urban apartments are often beautifully oblique but occasionally so pointedly specific you can practically smell the whiskey on his breath. There probably isn't a man alive who can't relate to these lines from "Slow Show": "Looking for somewhere to stand and stay/I leaned on the wall and the wall leaned away/Can I get a minute of not being nervous/And not thinking of my dick?" Ever the romantic, Berninger redeems his vulgarity later in the song with a heart-on-sleeve declaration that is no less lovely for all of its flop-sweat desperation: "You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you”¦I missed you for 29 years."
On a musical level, Boxer blends bare-bones mope-rock with smart string and brass arrangements courtesy of the National's unofficial sixth member, Padma Newsome, the Australian-born composer and multi-instrumentalist who has collaborated on almost all the band's recordings.
"We involved him earlier on this time, even in the writing process," notes Dessner, "so some of those [orchestral] arrangements;a good example would be 'Squalor Victoria';are really much more integral to what the song is, rather than just sort of icing."
If Berninger's incisive wordplay and Newsome's neoclassical textures contribute to the songs' being less immediately infectious than, say, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's floor-filling "Satan Said Dance", Dessner doesn't seem perturbed.
"We tend to write things that we want to listen to over and over again, so the fact that there are multiple layers to things, and that attention to detail, is definitely a product of that," the guitarist says. "We make stuff that we really, really love. That said, we like a catchy song just as much as anybody else, so I think the hooks are in there. They're just more subtle."
The National plays Richard's on Richards next Friday (June 29).