A Tall Kingdom - By Volume

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A Tall Kingdom

Dylan charts The National's (un)surprising rise to prominence Author: on May 17, 2013
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The National are old, or at least older than many of their newer fans may think. Lead singer and lyricist Matt Berninger is a sprightly forty-two, and the rest of the band are not far off. Six albums in, The National have only been a band since 2001, and if you consider 2005’s Alligator as their step into the spotlight, they’ve only been on most listener’s conscious radars for eight years. And, yet, they feel like the elder statesmen of American indie rock. Their median age certainly has something to do with it; The National have always felt distinctly mature, from their brooding songwriting to Berninger’s lyrical musings about alcoholism, medicated depression, divorce and vacant sex. This is not children’s music; it’s not even youthful in a classic sense. These are tunes for old souls and weathered bodies.

Yet the band have never been lacking in exuberance, even at their most subdued. I was turned to this band by a friend and formally introduced via an opening set for The Arcade Fire, whose Neon Bible had been released only a matter of days prior. The National were taking Boxer on the road, and I was bewildered. Years and tears later, there are few artists I hold in higher regard, and even as Boxer still doesn’t quite rub perfect, it was more than apparent that the Canadian powerhouse weren’t just bringing The National along for the ride. They were trying to learn explosive subtlety from the experts, and only now do I wish I had the patience to appreciate it at the time. The headline band were having shows stolen out from under them – but I feel like that was Arcade Fire’s intention from the start.

Akin to a certain Craig Finn of Hold Steady fame, but much more intensely personal, Berninger has a keen ability to transplant blue-bloods into his elder’s shoes. “Lay the young blue bodies / With the old red violets” he envisions on “Afraid of Everyone” one of High Violet‘s many highlights. It is not difficult to imagine Berninger himself as the metaphorical undertaker, completely wrapped in a black shroud. Constantly laying down his youthful ambitions alongside his experience and lost dreams, he always approaches these touchy topics with a rational gravitas. Every word that exits his lips, half mumbled or not, is life-changing, with fate resting on the hinges of each syllable. The National back Berninger with their sweeping melodies, subtle strings and tempered guitar riffs – not to mention Bryan Devendorf’s exceptional drumming. Every aspect of their music speaks to their experience. Truthfully, though, they hit this stride with Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, their second fucking record.


But if being mature were a drawback then this band would not have ascended to their current heights in such a short period of time. In 2007, nearly twenty years into their musical careers (though not necessarily as The National), and after three well-received records, they were opening for Arcade Fire. By 2009, The National’s myth had built to a burst and now, in 2013, you’d be hard pressed to find them opening for anybody in a single-show setting. For most who have fallen for this Brooklyn by-way-of Ohio band, it’s always seemed simultaneously obvious and bizarrely unrealized. The National entered our perception as wise elders – a strange state of affairs, indeed – and with Trouble Will Find Me, their newest masterclass, they continue to transition into their forties with an immaculate grace and swelling energy. There’s not just life in the old dog; there’s something passionately electric.

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