Jon Langmead’s recent review of the National’s Alligator here on PopMatters a little over a week ago was a bit controversial among our writers. While I respect Jon’s opinion, I couldn’t have disagreed more with his review, no matter how entertaining or well-written it may have been, and felt that he was unduly dismissive of a band that, in my opinion, deserved to be shown a lot more respect.
I should say that I don’t own any of the National’s previous albums, nor have I even been aware of their very existence until fairly recently. I came across Alligator on Emusic and downloaded the album a few days before Jon’s review appeared. I wasn’t blown away by it initially, yet after spending the better part of the week with it, I found it to be an excellent batch of melodic, well-executed songs with a lot of subtext lurking just beneath the surface. Jon’s beef seemed to be more with singer Matt Berninger’s lyrics than with anything else, which he described as “repellent, useless, and ridiculous.” That’s a tad unfair, really. It seems to me that this was an overly-harsh assessment of Berninger’s words, which were taken and used completely out of context. There are lyrical gems in most of the songs, and overall Berninger writes unpretentiously and delivers his lyrics convincingly and with a slightly Dadaist twist:
You were right about the end; it didn’t make a difference.
How can anybody know, how they got to be this way?
Everything I can remember, I remember wrong.
This is nothing like it was in my room, in my best clothes, thinking of you.
Where it’s random, and it’s common versus common.
I don’t subscribe to the point of view that rock lyricists should be elevated to literary heights, and I don’t think we should be expecting them to be John Steinbeck, or to somehow give us all the meaning of life. They’re merely commenting on things as they see them. Whether you feel it has merit or not, it’s still genuine.
Musically, there’s a mix and match approach to much of Alligator that works quite well. The band excels at establishing a mood and then playing within the dynamics of the song to keep things constantly moving and fresh. Drummer Bryan Devendorf is key to these shifts, and is one of the most musical drummers I’ve heard in some time. Not just content to stay in the pocket, Devendorf establishes the beat and then further explores the tonalities of the drums as an instrument in a manner that is sorely lacking in most rock music. His style is more akin to a jazz drummer’s finesse. Add guitars that strangely evoke double time country-style picking and Cure-style bass, and I can’t for the life of me see how it could be called “uninspiring” and “supremely unlikeable”. Songs like the piano-driven “Karen” and the chamber-pop of “The Geese of Beverly Road” contain some classic pop songwriting with a decidedly darker spin on things, while the heartbreaking two-fer of “Val Jester” and “Daughters of the SoHo Riots” contrast the more boisterous tracks like the Westerberg-sounding “Abel” and climactic album closer “Mr. November”. Alligator covers a lot of sonic territory, yet still manages to hold it all together to make a fine, cohesive long player.
I should also point out that while the National are considered a “Brooklyn” band, all of its members hail from Cincinnati, Ohio, and don’t really stylistically have much in common with Interpol, the Walkmen, or any other bands from the Williamsburg scene. For one thing, the band has a sly sense of self-effacing humor and a good grasp of social irony that is far more intelligent than say, the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs for example. To lump them in with these bands is kind of misleading and not representative of what the band is doing on Alligator.
Finally, I find Matt Berninger’s voice to be warm, rich, and somewhat evocative of Leonard Cohen, and I feel it’s a good analogy to use in trying to explain what Berninger and the National are all about. Lyrically, Berninger is mining similar territory to Cohen’s, and while the band is seemingly open to any influence, I keep hearing the first two Psychedelic Furs albums as the foundation of the band’s sound. Call me crazy.
Alligator is one of those albums that slowly dawns on you. Given half a chance, it’s ultimately a very rewarding listening experience that I predict will continue to grow in stature as time passes. Jon — and our readers — would do well to give it another chance.