Music is reflection of self, as much for the listener as for the artist. We share our lives with the records we love, and perhaps the characters who populate our favorite soundscapes come to know us, as we come to know them. If that’s a ridiculous fantasy, it’s a comforting one, but it’s this line of thinking that means the National’s third studio LP Alligator will always occupy a special place in my heart of hearts.
I discovered Alligator at the same time as Boxer, in early 2011, as I swapped the cold expanse of London for the serpentine canals of Amsterdam. For months High Violet had provided a vivid soundtrack to my life, but the change of scenery proved the necessary catalyst for me to finally delve into the band’s back-catalogue. I take perverse pleasure in wallowing in melancholic music, and I needed something forged from the same meld of malaise and misery as the National’s fifth LP. Alligator did not disappoint: a familiar icy retread of disquiet and discomfort that mirrored by own growing sense of alienation with the friends I’d left behind in England.
This week marks a decade since Alligator was released, but the National have been consistently brilliant for so long it’s hard to recall a time when they were struggling to make their imprint on the annals of music history. But that time existed, and it was 2005, and that imprint was Alligator. In part a warped, wounded love-letter to Brooklyn, it’s also a vivisection of the psyche of Middle America in the aftermath of four torrid years under Bush. A protracted series of Middle Eastern wars yawned out into the horizon with no end in sight, and the album’s anti-Bush resonance was amplified on release when it followed Bush’s second inauguration.
If Alligator sounds like a group of titans finding their feet and honing their sound, it also finds them succeeding spectacularly in the process. In retrospect, its varied baroque pop trappings would serve as a template for all three future iterations of the band – on Boxer, High Violet, and Trouble Will Find Me – though they would dispense with Alligator’s meatier rock elements on their three subsequent albums. This is the National at their rawest and most elemental though. Notably, it would be the last time singer Matt Berninger would lose his shit and scream on record, as on excellent lead single “Abel”.
The classic motifs that typify the best work in their canon are present throughout: Berninger’s earthy, molten gold baritone; Bryan Devendorf’s spectacularly inventive drumming (beautifully compared by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker to the sound of “rain falling through leaves”); and the lead singer’s heart-rending observations on loss (“Friend of Mine”: “I’ve got two sets of headphones, I miss you like hell”).
Matt Berninger has long been ribbed for being a morose son-of-a-bitch, butAlligator demonstrated clearly that he was capable of Morrissey-like levels of hilarity with expositions on everyday mundanity. “I know you put in the hours to keep me in sunglasses,” sings the anxiety-wracked, kept man of “Secret Meeting”, whilst “Karen”‘s abusive alcoholic protagonist waxes lyrical in order to justify the unjustifiable: “It’s a common fetish, for a doting man, to ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand”.
A dark subtext lurks like a hidden suburban sewer beneath many of the lyrics, and Berninger’s sharp turns of phrase work so well because they’re delivered unpretentiously and backed by such tenderly executed musicianship. Over the course of thirteen eerily perfect tracks the band veer from the heart-breaking (“Abel, my mind’s gone loose inside the shell”) to the darkly humorous (“I’m a perfect piece of ass, like every Californian”). Berninger keeps things fresh by somehow managing to imbue the characters he plays with an endearing mix of angst and self-loathing.
Glorious melodies abound on Alligator, but even on the sublime pieces of music like “The Geese of Beverly Road”, you can sense the deliberate effort to prioritize mood over melody. If there’s an easy criticism you can level at the LP it’s that Berninger’s abstract lyrics and opaque metaphors can take time to decipher (take “All The Wine”‘s “I’m a birthday candle in a circle of black girls”) but like all great works this investment yields rewards, and Alligator’s real beauty is that it unfurls slowly, revealing its rich treasure trove of secrets over time.
PUBLISHED: PRETTY MUCH AMAZING – APRIL 2015