Over 13 doing-nothing tracks, Matt Berninger bumbles out useless lyrics that he doesn’t have the guts to put across. Nothing resonates: “It’s a common fetish for a doting man to ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand”; “Break my arms around the one I love and be forgiven by the time my lover comes”; “I’m sorry I missed you/ I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain”; “I’m a birthday candle in a circle of black girls/ God is on my side”; “You had a permanent piece of my medium-sized American heart”; “Call me my waitress and serve me tonight/ Serve me the sky with a big slice of lemon”; and on and on. What’s meant as gritty is instead ridiculous. The material is repellant not because it presents an unsettling glimpse of life but because it is so clumsily and arrogantly executed. Maybe someone at the record company is convinced this guy has the soul of a poet but the writing provides no hint of it. It flounders without ever connecting.
The songs are scenes from wasted lives of characters that seem to have no connection to the bigger world. Dwelling on what to say about this album I found myself turning into one of them, hurling dishes across the room, knocking over stacks of CDs (making sure to crack all the cases), screaming at my fiancée as she tried to calm me down. I took our picture off the mantle and used the bottom of my Smirnoff bottle to smash it to pieces. I ran the broken glass over my hands while she dashed to the stereo and knocked it to the ground. She pleadingly reminded me that less than a week ago I had come home from Texas, more excited and confused than ever about the possibility for a band to put across real emotions and complicated feelings. I’d seen American Music Club kick and fall their way through five songs at 2:00 in the morning on a Thursday, and left positively inspired. I put the glass down as she replaced the stereo back on the shelf, then she put The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Greatest Hits on the turntable and we stayed like that until morning, flipping the record over and over.
After a good night’s sleep, I thought that maybe there was something to the reaction, something to songs that made me want to throw my life away so completely. I tried to write six hundred words on the subject, but they just wouldn’t come. I played the album’s last three songs over and over hoping to find the hidden depths (or at the very least a point of comparison) but Alligator just kept coming up short. I read through the press notes, “Alligator‘s heroes are reckless and possessed seducers, but they are apologetic ones.” It unintentionally got at the root at the problem. Can an apologetic seducer go far? Can they ever engage you in any real way? Or is it all a self-serving laziness parading as hurt?
Whatever attempts are made to seduce just feel gross and fake, as charming as a drunk that urinates on himself as he tries to spit out a pick-up line. No real humanity or compassion or sensitivity to the scenes comes through, this album just feels wrong. The band’s arrangements do their best to not crowd the vocals; they lay so low that they barely exist. With a different singer they would just be bland and uninspired, here they comes off as supremely unlikable. How can they go into battle behind this dreck? In the absence of a band with personality, all that’s really left to focus on is the singing… the awful, awful singing. Berninger’s wholly unappealing; his flat delivery wears you out by the time he croaks out the first lines of “Astronaut” (only the album’s fourth song).
As I wrote, I kept feeling a responsibility to find bright spots but the harder I looked the stronger the urge to throw my laptop down in disgust; (Full disclosure: I can live with parts of “Abel”). If you could generalize about a localized music scene by the indigenous bands that manage to get national attention, then it would be fair to assume that Brooklyn’s well of creativity has gone dry. Since you can’t, the best conclusion to draw is that the National’s well has never been very deep, and that no matter how many times you dip into it you’ll come up empty.