We count down The National's best songs to celebrate the release of the band's new album, ‘First Two Pages Of Frankenstein’.
There are few bands I follow so fervently as American indie rockers The National.
After four years away, they’re releasing their new album, ‘First Two Pages Of Frankenstein’, on 28 April, and the prospect of getting a fresh batch of National songs has me feeling like a child dizzy on lemonade.
The first time the band dropped on my radar was at university, where my friend Ben had discovered them.
“You need to listen to this track – it’s perfect,” he said, referring to their song ‘Fake Empire’ from their fourth studio album, 2007’s ‘Boxer’.
Considering his impeccable taste in music, I learned that a musical stamp of approval from Ben was rarely worth ignoring. So I listened, and from the first plaintive piano chords, I was hooked. I’d have to wait until 2010 for the release of their album ‘High Violet’ to see the band live for the first time, and since then, I’ve never missed an opportunity to catch them in concert, even buying tickets for consecutive nights when they do back-to-back evenings at a venue. And every time I get to see them perform, I’m filled with that rather unique feeling of euphoria and replenishment that one gets after having experienced a live show from a band or artist they connect to on an emotional level.
Yes, The National’s music has often been described as sadsack tunes for the gloomy middleclass, something High Fidelity’s Barry would describe as “sad bastard music”.
Not unfair descriptives in the grand scheme of things, but The National remain a rare breed for me, a band whose intricate musical arrangements interlaced with poetic and evocatively surrealist lyrics swell with a melancholia that somehow manages to be uplifting. And for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, this dichotomy takes on new dimensions live, when frontman Matt Berninger brings the uplift by passionately shouting or energetically wander around the crowd.
To this day, I’ve seen The National live a total of 17 times – which also happens to be my favourite number.
Not that I’m going to get overly sentimental about it, as I fully plan on graduating to 18 this year for their upcoming tour promoting ‘First Two Pages of Frankenstein’.
But, for the time being - and for all of those who haven’t yet discovered this band and fancy an entrance point before listening to their new album - here is a personal list of the 17 best The National songs - one for every gig ticket I’ve purchased over the years.
17) Lemonworld ('High Violet')
“Lay me on the table, put flowers in my mouth / And we can say that we invented a summer loving torture party.”
This track off ‘High Violet’, the 2010 album that propelled The National to worldwide fame, apparently required up to 80 takes to get right. But boy did they get it right. The emotionally expansive song is about an elsewhere world, away from exhaustion and depression, which singer / lyricist Matt Berninger understands is the absence of feeling, rather than the presence of sadness. As is the band’s custom, the meaning of the “lemonworld” is open to interpretation, and the surreal quality of some of the lyrics make the song soar.
16) About Today ('Cherry Tree EP')
“What could I say? / I was far away / You just walked away.”
This mournful ballad can be filed under “sad dad rock” and the economic 80+ words in ‘About Today’ is a testament to what the band can do when they embrace their unique brand of tender minimalism. It’s about being in a relationship that's on the brink of collapse, and the musical build up towards the end of the track manages to be both beautiful and devastating.
15) Exile Vilify (Single)
“Does it trouble your mind the way you trouble mine?”
A deep cut this one, as ‘Exile Vilify’ doesn’t feature on any album or EP. I don’t even think it’s on Spotify. However, seek it out – you won’t regret it. The band released the piano-led track for the soundtrack of the video game Portal 2 in 2011, and if the orchestration doesn’t get you weeping, then you’re a more emotionally robust person than I am.
14) Sleep Well Beast ('Sleep Well Beast')
“See you at the end of the party with your wild white eyes / Filling up the teacup with gin in your secret postcard life.”
This closing song off the band’s seventh album ‘Sleep Well Beast’ shows the band experimenting with some glitchy electronica. It may not be an obvious choice compared to the album’s singles ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ and ‘Day I Die’, but the subtle tension created by the repeated lines “I'll still destroy you some day, sleep well beast, you as well, beast” will haunt you for days.
13) Conversation 16 ('High Violet')
“I was afraid, I’d eat your brains.”
While The National specialise in inducing a sort of dreamlike mood, they’re not devoid of humour and self-awareness. Far from it. Focusing on everyday interactions that may seem mundane (hence the title), the song uses zombie references as a metaphorical launching point to comment on how romance can elevate everyday life rituals and our daily performances into something altogether more exciting. All with a solid dose of tongue-in-cheek surrealism.
12) Rylan ('I Am Easy To Find')
“Stay with me among the strangers / Change your mind and nothing changes.”
This song was a treasured setlist mainstay for fans before the band recorded the studio version on their penultimate album, 2019’s ‘I Am Easy To Find’. This sprawling record saw the band move away from focusing on Berninger’s signature baritone by adding a panoply of female guest vocals. This yielded one of the record’s best tracks, 'Rylan', a poetic and brooding song about introversion that benefits from lush orchestral flourishes which achieve that delicate balance between morose and uplifting.
11) You’ve Done It Again, Virginia ('The Virginia EP')
“You're tall, long legged and your heart's full of liquor / Me and everybody are just ice in a glass.”
Another leftfield pick, as ‘The Virginia EP’ (2008) isn’t on everyone’s radar. However, the release of this B-sides compilation yields some beautiful songs, including ‘Blank Slate’, ‘Santa Clara’ and the opening track ‘You’ve Done It Again, Virginia’. The song feels like it’s about a recently ended relationship, and its tone can be perceived to be accusatory and even sarcastic at times. It’s about reconciling fantasies with reality, and looking back and wishing you’d turned the page sooner on a doomed romance. An utterly breathtaking track.
10) Daughters of the Soho Riots ('Alligator')
“Break my arms around the one I love / And be forgiven by the time my lover comes.”
This delicate ballad is about confronting youthful naivety and realising that weariness regarding the modern world is inevitable with age. The song also deals with the topic of gentrification to better comment on how things may not work out as planned, but disillusions don’t have to be synonymous with an unfulfilled existence. Or it’s just a very pretty song. Your call.
9) This is the Last Time ('Trouble Will Find Me')
“I won't be vacant anymore / I won't be waiting anymore.”
This masterfully written song from arguably my favourite of The National’s albums – ‘Trouble Will Fine Me’ (2013) – is a multifaceted tune, featuring several crescendos which deliver the emotional goods. The song takes on a whole other dimension live, when Berninger lets loose and shouts the lines quoted above. In a live setting, lyrics likening love to swamps reveal the song’s meaning about vicious cycles in relationships and the mistakes we never learn no matter how hard we try. Maybe a certain form of chaos fills us up and beats avoiding bad habits? Call it human nature. By the time the female-sung lines “it takes a lot of pain to pick me up” arrive, you can bet the shivers will be running down my spine all over again.
8) Terrible Love ('High Violet')
“It takes an ocean not to break.”
The opening track of 'High Violet' initially seems like it could be more of the band’s customarily morose brand. While the song does explore themes of regret and looming existential crises, the raw emotion on show coupled with a never-better rhythm section and soaring guitar lines build to an explosive crescendo like no other. Once again, the live experience of hearing a crowd sing along to this tune has a uniquely energising effect. ‘Terrible Love’ has become one of the band’s most beloved setlist mainstays, a cathartic gem that keeps getting better and better every time I listen to it.
7) Mr November ('Alligator')
"I'm the new blue blood / I'm the great white hope."
Another energetic live one, which usually features Berninger jumping his way through the crowd with a chorded mic, ‘Mr November’ is one of the band’s most enduring songs. The track was supposedly penned about the 2004 US elections and inspired by Democratic candidate John Kerry; it encompasses a raw desire for hope, as well as that pressure-filled feeling everyone has – a politician in this case – when having to perform in front of large crowds. Speaking of which, every time The National play it live, an exorcism of sorts occurs: mic stands are thrown, eardrums are destroyed, and crowds defiantly yell the rallying cry: “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr November”. It’s a joyful explosion.
Here's some footage of Berninger's live antics:
6) Pink Rabbits ('Trouble Will Find Me')
“I'm so surprised you want to dance with me now / I was just getting used to living life without you around.”
Mixologists were given an almighty headache when this song was released, as the Pink Rabbit cocktail only existed in Berninger’s mind. It’s the central focus of a heartbreaking song about confusion and yearning for closure following a painful relationship. It also deals with the flip-flopping feelings of a person who doesn’t know what they want – someone to avoid, but also someone you may not be able to stop thinking about. As per usual, the lyrics don’t drown in self-pity when dealing with heart-swelling emotions and have plenty of humour (“I was a television version of a person with a broken heart”) to better convey the enormity of heartache.
5) Slow Show ('Boxer')
“I wanna hurry home to you / Put on a slow, dumb show for you and crack you up.”
This stunning song is a highlight from the band’s 2007 album ‘Boxer’. It deals with… well, everything: being at a party and wanting to be literally anywhere but there; self-doubt in a relationship; the ever-sneaking suspicion that you might be overdoing it to mask the fear you’re not enough… But above all, it’s a celebration of the oft-dismissed everyday expressions of love within relationships - in this case that powerful desire to hurry home to the one you love, and make them laugh. The song’s final sentiment lets go of any reflexive introversion and gives way to the plainspoken yet poetic realisation that it’s always been about that one person: “You know I dreamed about you / For twenty-nine years before I saw you / I missed you for twenty-nine years”. Who said there weren’t any happy endings?
4) Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks ('High Violet')
“All the very best of us / String ourselves up for love.”
The closing song of the album ‘High Violet’ is also the best set-closing song in the band’s catalogue. It’s usually performed without microphones, with the crowd singing along to every line. Quite how The National managed to turn this delightfully oblique song into an anthemic call-to-arms is impressive, and there’s a lump in my throat every time I hear it. It all means what you want it to mean, revelling in its ambiguities, but that one repeated line says it all: “All the very best of us / String ourselves up for love.” No matter who you are, everyone has the propensity to punish themselves for their mistakes. However, no one loses when you put everything on the line for the ones you care about. Even at the cost of pain.
And if you want a taste of what it sounds like live, check this out:
3) Mistaken For Strangers ('Boxer')
“You wouldn’t want an angel watching over you / Surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t wanna watch / Another un-innocent, elegant fall / Into the un-magnificent lives of adults.”
Also the title of the (must-see) documentary about the band made by Matt Berninger's brother Tom, this song finds The National commenting on how years roll by without warning, and things change around you whether you want them to or not. The image of a starched-shirt worker hit by the ennui of their daily corporate grind is used to comment on thwarted dreams in adulthood. Hardly cheery, but there is something comforting in sitting with your sense of emptiness, knowing that others can often be in the same boat. Before you reach for a drink, take the time to appreciate a line which never ceases to stop me in my tracks: “Another un-innocent, elegant fall into the un-magnificent lives of adults”. Genius.
2) Don’t Swallow the Cap ('Trouble Will Find Me')
“I have only two emotions / Careful fear and dead devotion / I can’t get the balance right / Throw my marbles in the fight.”
Morbid observations about death, relatable yearnings about seeking connection, funny allusions to Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, poetic musings referencing the sea, apocryphal tales about Tennessee Williams – what more do you want? This is one of my favourite tracks, one which shows the band’s unparalleled knack in weaving together disparate images and references and somehow managing to create an emotionally layered and cohesive whole. Berninger is an absolute master when it comes to writing lyrics that stick with you more because of their rich ambiguity, thereby allowing for interpretative flexibility – and ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ is a feather in his.
1) Fake Empire ('Boxer')
“Tiptoe through our shiny city / With our diamond slippers on / Do our gay ballet on ice, bluebirds on our shoulders / We’re half awake in a fake empire.”
And we’re back to where it all started: ‘Fake Empire’.
It is the perfect The National song, a stunning ballad that features lyrics which doubly reflect on the happy places we wish we could shield ourselves inside with the ones we love, as well as commenting on fraught political and social issues (much like their songs ‘Mr November' and 2017’s ‘Turtleneck’). Indeed, 'Fake Empire' is a sly commentary about the US and a generation lost to apathy, and how when the sombre reality of a country (or the world) can’t be faced, life through denial seems more manageable with safe American Dream tropes represented by the likes of “pies”, “bluebirds” and “gay ballet on ice”. The 2007 song is also tied with Obama’s election in 2008, as it was used in the then-future president’s campaign video, instilling a sense of hope following the George W Bush years. And while ‘Fake Empire’s lyrics can be read as somewhat cynical, genuine earnestness prevails through the song's beauty and in its warning that succumbing to apathy could endanger humanity’s most precious traits: our fragile capacity to be curious, and our yearning to hope - for oneself and others.
The National's ‘First Two Pages Of Frankenstein’ is out on 28 April. They start touring in next month in the US, and will be coming to Europe from September, with current dates in Dublin, Leeds, Glasgow, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Madrid, Porto, and Lisbon.