There’s a moment at the end of ‘I Need My Girl’ when several layers of whirling synth collide, seeming to take off and leave the song behind. Within twenty seconds, they drop back down to earth and themselves disappear into ‘Humiliation’. It is a small moment on a big album, but it’s one of a considerable number of delicately manoeuvred sonic tingles to be found herein.
This is the album by The National that all made sense first time, whether it’s because of how well primed we all are now or the simple fact that, like R.E.M. before them, they have refined their sound to the point where we approach within certain parameters, waiting to be delighted. Having said, when writing about Midlake, that we don’t actually want our favourite bands to keep doing the same thing, I can’t pretend I wasn’t delighted to be on the receiving end of a new album by The National with obvious lineage from ‘Boxer’ and ‘High Violet’. It is, once again, a step on but both musically and commercially, they seem to be an unrelenting upward trajectory. The only downside to this that occasionally curdles in the mind is the concern as to how many more steps there are to U2 territory?
Not that such gory thoughts are needed right now. The classic slow-fast-slow mechanism is deployed liberally, but that is not to say it has grown tired, for who else is quite so adept at those often euphoric gear changes right now? It is a mighty skill and one which sits neatly alongside their devotion to detail. Matt Berninger’s vocals continue to tread the delicate line between somnambulant mumble and cerebral ache, rich and inviting at all points. ‘Demons’ was a fine choice of track with which to tease the album’s arrival, its juddering pace and almost grudging vocal the perfect vehicle for some fantastically evocative lyrics. “I am secretly in love with, everyone that I grew up with,” taps into a whole world of peculiar regrets and self-doubt, expanding on it with the exasperated, if wry, “when I walk into a room, I do not light it up… fuck!” The imagery of songs like ‘Karen’ (“to ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand”) may have been scaled back but the guard has been dropped a little as a song title like the afore-mentioned ‘I Need My Girl’ confirms.
The troubling twitch at the heart of ‘Sea Of Love’ is glorious, the sheer intensity of the verses building to a point of claustrophobia. The song’s brilliant video actually captures this perfectly, despite doing very little at all. During the weeks of obsessive listening that resulted from the album’s arrival, ‘Fireproof’ was the standout track, with its focus on dealing with someone who never cracks under the strain, who never seems to weaken. The skittering percussion is intermittently undercut by a warped drone and the troubled strings confirm the anxiety at the song’s heart.
However, with months having passed and many, many plays of the record along, it is ‘Pink Rabbits’ to which I now gravitate most keenly. Partly, it was Caitlin Rose‘s truly magical take on this song that made me fully appreciate its powers, (the Rose version really has to be heard, if only for the transcendent delivery of the line “Now I only think about Los Angeles when the sun kicks out.” Seriously, strap yourself, sit back and prepare a moist eye,) but I increasingly found myself delighted to be in the latter stages of the album because of what was still to come. No dumping of the stooge in the wasteland of track numbers in double figures here. The expression of the pain of unrequited love in this song – “I was a television version of a person with a broken heart” – is another example of Berninger’s knack for a lyric, a stand out line amongst many other crackers. The closing refrain of “you said it would be painless, it wasn’t that at all” might well have been the best place to leave ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ as, although ‘Hard To Find’ is no slacker, the emotions have peaked.
I find The National hard to write about. I had the exact same problem when ‘High Violet’ knocked me for six three years ago. This particular fact perhaps highlights better than a paragraph or three just why their albums are so special. They feel right, like a nicely cut suit or an expensive pair of shoes. Their music seems to mould itself to your emotions and to swell like a gas when you need it. They can be all-consuming and utterly essential when you need that tune to steady yourself. This is an excellent album, entirely deserving of the plaudits it has received. But, to me, it’s more than that. You’ll just have to take my word for it.