Some bands rocket to fame and pray not to burn out. Some become household names only after years of steady gigging and recording. And then there’s the National, which has slowly, gradually become the great word-of-mouth rock act of the past two years—and word is still just trickling out.
Formed in Brooklyn in 1999 by two pairs of brothers and a singer from Cincinnati, the brooding but brawny-sounding quintet isn’t the kind of band that thrives on immediacy. Its previous album, “Alligator,” barely made a blip when it came out in April 2005, but it wound up on numerous critics’ and bloggers’ year-end lists. That led to a buzz around the May release of the band’s fourth album, “Boxer,” including a four-star review in Rolling Stone.
But the National has yet to break big. “Our music just keeps kind of getting out there,” bassist-guitarist Aaron Dessner said by phone last month before the National returned to the road.
But the band takes some of the blame for the sluggish takeoff of its albums. This is an act whose music takes time to blossom.
“The kinds of songs we write aren’t the most immediate, but they sort of stick with you,” Dessner said. “There’s something about the music that sort of creeps up on people. It gets stuck in your head even though you don’t know what it is.”
That is absolutely the case with “Boxer.” The disc starts with a gloomy-sounding piano track, “Fake Empire,” which is either about a romance or a nation that’s sputtering along in a half-awake state. From there, it gradually builds but never fully explodes with hard-pounding but lightly melodic songs such as “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Squalor Victoria.”
At times on “Boxer,” it sounds as if the group’s baritone-voiced singer, Matt Berninger—think Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, but with pitch—is living in an utterly depressed state, as in the slowly pulsating “Apartment Song” when he promises to “stay inside till somebody finds us/Do whatever the TV tells us.” Upon further listening, however, the same song can sound celebratory and even romantic.
Dessner pinpointed Berninger’s voice as one of the slow-revealing beauties of the National. And he backed it up with a pretty reputable source.
“When we met Bruce Springsteen, he told us that when he first started out, people said he didn’t have any melodies,” Dessner recalled. (The band met the Boss at a New York tribute to his “Nebraska” album in April.)
“He said, `That’s what I like about you guys. You don’t really have a lot of melody.’ We were like, `Yes we do!’ But what he meant was Matt’s voice has a pretty subtle sense of melody, and there’s definitely something to that.”
Berninger writes all of the National’s lyrics. The themes on “Boxer” mostly grew out of the steady year and a half of touring that the band did in the shadow of “Alligator’s” slow ascent—not out of what the band saw on the road, but what it experienced afterward, Dessner explained.
“When we got home, we all just sort of collapsed, and there was a feeling among all of us of needing to reconnect with reality and normal, important things like relationships and family and friends,” he said.
“A lot of songs also have details of urban life, like living in apartments and in the city and trying to carve some personal space out of the city, being `mistaken for strangers by your own friends.’ And some things about getting older and becoming more professional-looking, you know, `showered and blue-blazered.’”
Before lyrics are added, the National’s songs generally start with the other four members: Aaron and his brother, Bryce Dessner, the band’s main guitarist, plus Bryan and Scott Devendorff, the drummer and other guitarist-bassist, respectively.
The fact that all have a hand in writing might be another reason for their music’s slow-burning appeal, Dessner theorized.
“There’s a lot of back-and-forth and give-and-take,” he said. “I’ll probably write 50 pieces of music and give it to Matt, and from that, there’ll be maybe 10 that he responds to. For us to write any song is a challenging process, and even more so to finish a song in a way that we’re all happy with. I don’t know if we could ever overtly think about writing a hit, because it’s hard enough just to wind up with songs that all five of us feel good about.”
All of them moved to Brooklyn from Cincinnati in the late ‘90s, before the band formed. Most had steady jobs in the then-thriving dot-com sector, so they started performing “just as a reason for us all to get together and hang out,” Dessner recalled.
Even though there’s a docketful of case studies on rock groups with brothers who can’t get along (Everly Brothers, Kinks, Van Halen, Black Crowes, Oasis, etc.), the National apparently has no trouble with sibling rivalry/bloodshed.
“For us, it’s actually really easy,” Dessner said. “It’s probably because we’re just sort of demure Midwesterners, pretty laid-back and not a lot of ego. In fact, it really feels like more of a blessing to have these two sets of brothers in the band because we get to share these great experiences with family.
“It might be easier, too, because this is all sort of happening later for us, so we’re a bit more mature about it,” he added. “Nobody has any delusional rock-star pretensions.”
Not yet, anyway. Let’s hope those aren’t slowly in the works, too.