S#@t You Should’ve Heard Before: The National

Who the Hell was THAT?! Echoing everything from Joy Division to Leonard Cohen, English New Wave and ‘No Depression’ Americana, it’s The National. If you pay any attention to Rolling Stone you would’ve seen their latest album, High Violet, alongside Kanye’s last release in the top albums of the year. And yet, apart from that one hip uncle we all seem to have (shout out to my Uncle Steven, by the by) nobody’s heard this group.

I guess that speaks to the vast chasm that lies between the press and the public. Popular taste seldom reflects critical opinion, after all.

Well, maybe we all should learn a little more about The National, see if we can figure out what all the critics are going nuts about.

Their first album was released in 2001; since then, they haven’t really switched sounds at all. Instead, their progression has seemed more… refinement of a formula. Though allmusic.com states their first record is the essential one, and most music blogs would suggest their newest offering, High Violet, is the swansong, my favorite of all their records is Boxer, from 2007, which has probably the strongest Side A of any of them.

The National’s sound is at once intimate and spacious, especially so on this record. They’re a group that breaks the classic indie mould in afew very important ways. Everything’s low-key, but still very intense. I find the mix on every one of their records is different, with Boxer really pushing the drums and ambient noise of the room, letting the rest of the music fade until its edges smear a bit and you have to strain a bit to make out the changes. The vocalist seems at first listen almost out of place, a deep baritone like Leonard Cohen, a delivery that reminds me of Tom Waits or Nick Cave. I think that’s one of the group’s selling points, a singer like that where the average listener would expect to hear a clear tenor above all the racket.

Anyway, this is a band that pays dividends the more time you spend with them. Take a listen to Boxer. Leave it on as you read a book, or are stuck in a car for 43 minutes. Just sit with it. You’ll see. Here’s “Start A War.”

PS Thanks again, Uncle Steven, for loaning me High Violet last year. I’m pretty sure I gave it back. Maybe that’s why you haven’t lent me anything since.

Make up something to believe in your heart of hearts / So you have something to wear on your sleeve of sleeves.

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