Lit Up: The National’s ‘Alligator’ and the Hope of Indie Rock

The National's seminal 2005 album Alligator shows the band, like America, to be lit up by white lights even as it is surrounded by darkness.
The National
Beggars Banquet

The Aughts opened with a rush and push and left the gates open for a run of epic and unforgettable indie rock. From 2000-2006, the map was wide open and ready for exploration and command. It all felt right as the new millennium began, when Radiohead soothed our Florida-election nightmare scenario with a note-perfect soundtrack to aid our oncoming distrust and malaise. “Everything in its right place,” Thom Yorke reminded us before warning us, “ice age coming… this is really happening.” Kid A was heralded before it showed up; the massive LP that set the bar astoundingly high for anyone else to follow. No one tried; or, more appropriately, no one tried to make their own Kid A. Instead, others ran up the path that Radiohead knocked down for its followers.

The majority of indie rock bands found contentment and appeal in following their own muses, mining the past and gutting for old materials to forge into something that sounded new, and thereby generally making music that simultaneously appealed to the masses and managed a modicum of commercial success. A quick snapshot of the Billboard charts from 2000-2001 shows a swath of artists all over the map stylistically, a genre-swap orgy where pop-country music butts heads against safe R&B and feel-good pop music. The alternative rock music that rears its head is condignly bland, as well; catchy as it may be, there’s nothing redeeming about Lifehouse’s number one song, “Hanging by a Moment”, or Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want”. But the early Aughts could never be accused not being fun. This was, after all, the age that would birth “Thong Song”, “It Wasn’t Me”, and the erstwhile and atrocious remake of “Lady Marmalade”.

It was not until 2002 that Jimmy Eat World arrived and scored big with “The Middle”, a teenage anthem of acceptance that was the precursor to LGBT “It Gets Better” campaign, that the crossover of indie rock begins to unfurl in the Billboard Top Songs charts. But it would take several more paradigm shifts before anything resembling independent music held staying power. Indie rock may have been a viable genre in Billboard’s eye, but it still wasn’t able to compete against the big machine of millennial pop.

Billboard charts never tell the whole story, though. Cracks in the fissure begin to appear as one moves through 2000 on into 2009. Coldplay, of course, gained an increasing presence, as did Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, and Fall Out Boy—the last vestiges hanging on to the alternative rock heyday of the ’90s. The Killers made their debut as with the ubiquitous “Mr. Brightside,” a song that, with some minor lyrical tweaking and major musical reworking, could have been a track that The National culled for its 2005 breakthrough, Alligator. Rock templates and new-wave synthesizers aside, the Killers’ music holds some common ground with the National: their penchant for name-checking characters in songs, immediately identifiable lead singers, theatricality boxed inside the structure of a pop song, to name a few. It might be a stretch to consider, but close your eyes and listen in and you can almost hear Matt Berninger muddle through “Smile Like You Mean It” and “Midnight Show,” drawing out the sharper lyrical points and turning the choruses into uncomfortable mantras of disillusion.

But where the success of The Killers’ Hot Fuss seemed pre-packaged and commercially understandable, the National’s Alligator was a dark horse. The Killers were ready-mades, built for their success, groomed carefully and showing up on radio and MTV seemingly overnight. The National, however, burned slowly and steadily, rising off a few critically well-received releases that stabilized the band’s shifting identity. Berninger, speaking to NPR in 2013, said, “We made two records that were largely ignored, and then we made an EP called Cherry Tree that I think was just when the chemistry of our band started to boil a little bit.”

That chemistry shows up most notably on the Alligator-included track, “All the Wine,” a condensed summation of some of the themes that The National would explore on Alligator and subsequent releases, as well. The deep narcissism of the protagonist is on display (“I’m a perfect piece of ass/Like every Californian”), as is the wanton tilt toward alcoholism (“all the wine is all for me”), the looming darkness in suburbia (“all safe and sound/ I won’t let the psychos around”), and the potential seed for a Messiah complex is nascent (“God is on my side/I’m the child-bride”). Then, in a pure moment of downturn, the song ends with the walls dropping around and the previously self-centered protagonist finding the purpose behind his machismo posturing: “Nothing can touch us, my love.” As it turns out, all we need is love.

“All the Wine” provides a sense of guardianship for both its subject and the band. The song is unmistakably tied up with the recurring American conflict wherein the towering giant nation of myth, perfect in form but drunk on power, is protecting its own through good intentions but misaligned execution. Echoes of wartime and political upheaval surround the depth of Alligator. Whether this parallel is intentional or not is subjective, of course. But 2005 was the year before George W. Bush was strongly rebuked in the Congressional midterm elections, with Republicans losing the House and Senate to the opposing party. The War on Terror had been going on for four years, and the end-goal seemed lost among dominant news cycles of celebrity whoredom. Additionally, the validity of the conflict had now been called into question.

America, it seemed, had about as much attention span for a trumped-up war as for a seventh season of The West Wing. The national consciousness was understandably frayed, consumed with global and personal perception while at the same time suffering the effects of an economy that was sliding slowly towards recession and default, a deeply affecting tragedy that put many middle and lower class families on the defensive and scrambling for financial protection. This was the time of rising gas prices, the suggestion of “staycations” as viable options for pleasure, and foreclosures on the horizon. Maybe history will forgive us all for doubting America as a bastion of hope; our outlook was exactly tinted through rose-colored glasses.

Fitting then that the National’s rise to popularity later became entangled with the man most associated with hope: Barack Obama. A curious pairing, given that Obama’s signature pitch to America, “Hope and Change,” are not thematic bedrocks of the National’s repertoire. (The band also printed signature t-shirts with Obama’s portrait and the words, “Mr. November” written below him; the juxtaposition of the song’s lyrics as an endorsement for political office are a wry commentary, at best, and a misguided attempt at humor, at worst.) The National’s brand of hope—buried deeply as it may be in its melancholia—is wrapped up in the personal, the individual identity as determined through self-awareness. Individuals in Alligator‘s tracks wear masks to hide vulnerabilities; they openly admit to faults and diseases only when under the influence of some drug; and they crave past lives with a ferocity that eclipses their present lives. Hope, according to Alligator, is found only in nostalgia, medication, and protective shields.

Was this hope, however, any less pure than the idyllic brand of hope that’s offered through religion, philosophy, or newbie politicians? Of course not. Hope is defined individually, driven by a deeper Jungian sense of self, a fleeting particle of light that passes by eternally out of our reach. The characters within Alligator aren’t just looking for hope, but also acceptance, understanding, and redemption, either within themselves or from others. The lives of these people are sedentary shells that absorb problems as they arise. “Secret Meeting” finds a withdrawn and isolated protagonist apologizing for his actions: “I’m sorry I missed you / I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain.” “Karen”, the most lyrically abrasive song on Alligator, finds its hopeful center in its titular character. The protagonist of “Karen” looks to her for his external pleasure (“fuck me and make me a drink”) and insists that his ways are temporary, “believe me, Karen / you just haven’t seen my good side, yet.” “Baby, We’ll Be Fine” contains an explicit proclamation of hope within in its own title. It’s a theme that’s been echoed repeatedly from Bob Marley to Katy Perry: hope springs eternal from the depths of misery, if you just give it time.

But there’s another line in “Karen” that taps the explicit, unspoken fear in the Aughts: “I wouldn’t go out alone into America.” The subtle weariness that Americans were facing down, identifying with single lyrical lines or musical proclamations, is what strikes a chord with listeners on Alligator. Even though hundreds of bands during the Aughts never shied away from posting their hearts on their sleeves (and then all over social media), the National didn’t cry out for attention or acceptance; it barely seemed to register a dull roar in the crowded field of indie rock attention-getters. The group’s slow ascent was sparked mostly from the strength of Alligator‘s single, “Abel”, an upbeat outlier in an album of downtempo shuffles and mumbling ruminations. “Abel” was the baited hook that drew listeners to the fold, a rock template with a sing-along verse made even stranger with a repetitive chorus of a single phrase: “My mind’s not right, my mind’s not right.”

There was catharsis in “Abel,” as there was in being able to hear such pointed admissions of dependence and struggle in the National’s songs. Rock bands build careers out of being unreliable, lyrically and stylistically. But much of what the National has to offer is relatable and candid, and its later albums have proved them to be just as reliable as musicians and songwriters. The band’s blood pumped the same way as ours, and it had a method of identifying with fans without compromising its musicality or value system. Album after album following Alligator reenforced the same or similar themes of alienation, depression, fear, and confusion. Wherever there was hope, it only came as an admission of guilt or failure; a brand of self-loathing that bordered on self-flagellation. Still, Alligator, like its noir cover and liner photos, kept lightness and darkness side by side as symbiotic creatures. The cast of characters that make up the album are lit up with white light, even when darkness surrounds them.

And so it was with the American consciousness for much of the Aughts. Almost all of us understood and felt that we were living in an uncomfortable world, a tenuous one where we were taught to report suspicious activity, even if it was our own neighbors, and pumped information about the threat of Islamist extremism and the daily sacrifices of American troops. Uncertain of how to handle a new intangible fear, we recoiled; some of us to our music, some of us to our families, others to more illicit offerings—that “secret meeting in the basement of [our] brains.” Many of us became preoccupied with an uncertain future in a slipping economy.

If there’s hope buoying us, it’s a resigned hope; an unspoken understanding that there’s little choice besides moving ahead, facing struggles piece by piece. If anything, the National assured us on Alligator that it was okay to keep moving with your head down, dealing with personal demons while administering a facade to those around you. It was okay to retreat into your brain, to keep your good side hidden, to hand the keys over to someone else while you got your mind right. Other artists championed this dilemma in popular music before: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joy Division, Nirvana, and Elliott Smith, among many others. All were successful in uncovering hidden truths to our psyches, keeping us grounded to a faux reality, and not pulling any punches lyrically or musically. Whenever artists such as these appear, I feel a small release and a bloodletting. It takes years, sometimes decades and a death in between before we identify the strength of these artists’ observational qualities. The National arrived at a time when we needed it most; crucially, the band then stayed with us, sharing their shame and their burdens along the way. The Aughts owe a lot to Alligator for helping to put a finger on our faceless fear. But, as fans, we owe more to the album than even we might be aware of.