The Nationals’ Alligator album was 15 years old last year. After all this time it still hits like a jackhammer. When I first heard The National I was going through a watershed in my professional and personal life. Having just graduated from University a few years previously I was chasing a dream of a high paid job. I wouldn’t realise this dream until a few years later and it took me a while to realise it wasn’t a dream at all.
I had to look at my inner being and soul in order to contemplate what it was I truly wanted. I paid my bills, had a decent holiday every year and lead a comfortable life, but felt empty. This record helped me realise that this feeling was okay. Other people felt like that. Especially Matt Berninger.
Alligator is brimming with dense, slow-burning hypnotic songs that manage to creep into your brain with every listen. The best of these tracks cover a litany of human emotions ranging from romantic loss, family relationships and emotional and financial insecurity.
That isn’t to say that this record is a largely morose affair. When it rocks, it rocks like a binge-drinker at the beginning of a long weekend. Unhinged and completely feral. Like an alligator. For anyone who’s experienced mental health problems at some time in their lives (I put myself in this category), Alligator is an essential listen.
As a young twenty something living in Belfast I can still recall the first time I heard The National. Having prised off the glued on cover CD free with my copy of Uncut magazine, I listened to some of the usual indie-by-numbers acts that had releases that month. Feeling largely unimpressed, I heard the opening strains of ‘Lit Up’. The opening guitar riff was both heavy and jarring, but what struck me most were the lyrics. They were poetic and Matt Berninger’s baritone sounded both punky and laidback at the same time.
Having got my first ever iPod and being too skint to own a computer (it was the early noughties and pre-Spotify), a friend downloaded some tracks on to it. By a twist of fate, amongst some other great music like early Arctic Monkeys and Arcade Fire, here was Alligator by The National. The band that had the great rhythm section, spiky guitar riffs and fantastic singer with the voice and lyrics that I heard on ‘Lit Up’.
They were a band that spoke to me in a way that none had since I first heard the Smiths. Berninger’s lyrics on Alligator are similar to Morrissey’s on certain Smiths tracks, particularly the more understated ones like Rubber Ring and Rusholme Ruffians. The beautiful, understated Val Jester is a perfect example. Driven by a beautiful stirring, string arrangement it is essentially a song about empty nest syndrome inspired by Berninger’s Uncle. It is a lament, Berninger intoning ‘you should have hung on to her better, you should’ve locked the door’. I have 2-year-old daughter. When I listened to this song recently it brought a tear to my eye. The song had taken on a whole new meaning since I first heard it all those years ago.
When I listen to The National, especially Alligator (and Boxer as well) I sometimes find myself transported to a more middle-class version of the kitchen sink drama Morrissey described in the Smiths’ Jeane. Tales of professional white-collar peaks and troughs rub shoulders with feelings of inadequacy and a morose failure to live up to one’s own expectations.
Matt Berninger’s voice throughout Alligator is an ambivalent punk drawl. There are definite similarities to Stephen Malkmus of Pavement in delivery, unsurprising given that Berninger went on record as saying that Pavement were the reason he wanted to be in a band. Every song contains instantly quotable lyrics that could easily have been lifted from a Francis Ford Coppola movie, a kitchen sink drama or a poem by Philip Larkin.
Some of the songs, like Abel, Mr November and All the Wine are arena-sized, while the others are slow burners, the hypnotic rhythm section of the Devendorf brothers pummelling out the backbone of the songs, while the Dessner twins swirled dark, intricate and melancholy guitar lines through out and Berninger sang lyrics that touched my soul and exorcised my demons. It was full of the poetic, often jarring lyrics that I first heard on ‘Lit Up’.
On “Baby, We’ll Be Fine”, Berninger feels the pressure felt by a young man trying to forge a career in a dog eat dog world. Financial pressure to provide for your family is felt by most young men. This track is one of The National’s best slow burning anthems. The hypnotic rythym section pulls you in and Berninger’s lyrics hit you like a sucker punch.
He tries to assure his partner that everything will be fine in between 45-minute showers contemplating life and his partner spilling Jack and Coke on his collar. The pounding monotonous rhythm of the song is a perfect accompaniment to Berninger’s lyrics. His constant refrain of “baby, we’ll be fine” suggests a disillusion with everyday life and a failure to live up to expectations within his career and family. The sense of failure inherent within the song is evident when he repeats “I’m so sorry for everything” over and over at the end of the song.
I used to find myself surrounded by people at parties asking the inevitable questions ‘so what do you do for a living?’. At the time, I was still contemplating what to do with my life. This record got me through this phase of my life. What young male hasn’t felt socially awkward at one point or another? The first track on the album Secret Meeting sums this feeling up perfectly. ‘It went the dull and wicked ordinary way’ is perhaps the most perfect encapsulation of ennui ever committed to song.
In the song Karen, Berninger sings about the mundanity and listlessness of romantic and family relationships. It details the struggles of a burgeoning relationship where he feels mechanical and thin. The hero of the song tries to assuage Karen’s fears over her father’s odd behaviour, insisting that it’s a common fetish for a doting man to ballerina half naked on a coffee table.
Berninger adopts this tone through out the album, using jarring, often aggressive lyrics that are sometimes at odds with the waltzy, almost trance like rythym of many of the songs. They seem to come out of nowhere, after cloud-like moments of introspection. As anyone who as ever suffered post-traumatic stress disorder or bereavement can tell you, it is often characterised by periods of introspection, irritability and mood swings. Berninger often sounds like a grief-stricken man, irritable and restless. At other times, such as on ‘All The Wine’ he’s a festival, a parade. In short, schizophrenic. This is his allure.
Nowhere does Berninger sound more aggressive or unhinged than on the chugging indie rock anthem ‘Abel’, bellowing ‘my mind’s not right’ over and over like a strait-jacketed street poet. His mind has indeed became loose inside it’s shell.
The most beautiful and perfectly poised track on the album is perhaps the majestic Geese of Beverly Road. Opening with an unexpected wash of woodwind and strings, the song gives way to cymbals and a frenetic drumbeat.
In interviews, Berninger intimated that the song was about sitting on his porch in his Brooklyn neighbourhood watching a crowd of young children setting off car alarms. The car alarms are the titular geese. Everyone has felt at some point in their lives like the young children portrayed in this song. Berninger just manages to make it sound so damn romantic.
It conjures an unbridled feeling of nostalgia and longing for the long hot summers and promise and potential of youth, long before our dreams and ambitions have been dashed. The refrain ‘we’ll get away with it, we’ll run like we’re awesome, totally genius’ is a feeling that everyone has as a child, though we’re transported into the present by Berninger. The effect on the listener is a longing for days gone by, a nostalgia for one’s childhood.
The final track Mr November is a stunning tour de force of a song and one really that sealed the deal for The National to become my favourite band. They went on to make many great albums, in particular the stately Boxer and the sprawling, cinematic and ambitious ‘I Am Easy To Find’, but none of their later efforts matched Alligator for sheer punk energy and visceral, poetic power.
The most stunning achievement of this record is how organic it feels. I’ve lived with this Alligator now for over a decade and it keeps evolving. It’s scales grow deeper every year and it skulks and moves about in unexpected directions. Every time I listen to it, I hear something different. It feels like a pet, that I go back to every now and again to stroke and cuddle. It helps my anxiety and keeps me grounded and feeling healthy. Just make sure you watch it’s bite.
This blog contains Affiliate Links which I receive a small percentage of commission for recommending.