album review

The National Are Now a Parody Act

Once a cure for melancholy, the National now feel like a cause. Photo: Beggars Group Digital

A minor chorus of sneers and dismissals has stalked the National on their long slog to mass acceptance. For two decades, critics have mocked the band as the last refuge of curdling middle-age men who once thought themselves bound for something better. Even the most admiring reviews include secondhand sighs and half-chewed platitudes: “misery,” “torment … self-loathing,” “dour,” “morbid,” “gloomy,” “purgatory,” “mope-rock.” Carl Wilson, chief music critic for Slate, once let out a long runny sneeze of indictment: “Portentous, monotonous, self-conscious, and deficient in character and eccentricity.”

The work itself proved otherwise. Divide the better part of the National’s catalogue and you find, on the one hand, piercing sketches of social unease and the fear of being revealed a sentimental fraud; on the other, dispatches from worn fumbled romances with all the lash and swoon of thwarted love. The signal motif — particularly on the four-album run of Alligator (2005), Boxer (2007), High Violet (2010), and Trouble Will Find Me (2013) — is anxiety but rarely complete sadness. These are songs of worry and longing, rapturous hymnals to the fortifying qualities of booze, and elegies for the illusive wisdom we’re told is supposed to come with maturation. In the National’s music, the crossed threads of life, however mangled, aren’t going to spoil. The group was never quite as miserable as you remember.

At least, that used to be true. What are we to think now, having hurried our way through the arid and featureless plateau of their late career only to consider that all the mocking scorn has been proven true? With Sleep Well Beast (2017), I Am Easy to Find (2019), and their latest album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, the band have bumbled blandly into a lampoon of themselves. The hope, humor, and earnestness they once prized has been pawned for a brand of insipid and guileless mopery. Mistaken for a generic “sad dad band” for so long, the National’s face has grown to fit the mask.

If there is a single regression that makes this unhappy triplet of records sound so uniformly dim and desperate, it is vocalist Matt Berninger’s flight from the subterranean caverns where his voice echoes best. For much of their career, Berninger’s baritone summed up the band’s textures. That voice — languid, searching, slightly debauched — was once the centerpiece of a complete and holistic text. But on Sleep Well Beast, he decided to go foraging in higher octaves. The wine-dark seduction of his gruff rumblings was thrown to the rough mercy of unattainable upper registers. By attempting to sing in a traditional style, hovering around the plain middle of the pop range, he strayed further from the roots of his charm.

The dissolve from lauded male harrumph to lounge singer’s croon introduced a new problem: that of phrasing. The more Berninger held his notes, the longer the vowels got, leaving fewer syllables in a line and thus less space for the jocosity and mystery of his words. Meanwhile, all of the markers displayed on earlier records — the detours into absurd details, the sense of humor, the flighty shift from mundane details to theological allusions — were cast out for unrelenting, clumsy, declarative internal monologue. What happened to the rogue who once, with a wan smile, told us on “Karen” that “It’s a common fetish / for a doting man / to ballerina on a coffee table / cock in hand”? Or the liquor-pumped braggard lifting a toast on “All the Wine” to being “a perfect piece of ass / Like every Californian”?

All we’re left to nurse in this current period is a litter of empty howls. The kind of straightforwardly gloomy feelings so many critics accused them of harboring piled up — and kept piling up until there was no escape or release. A weary pall fell over the work as Berninger stripped all the richness and irony from his lyrics. “Nothing I change changes anything,” Berninger moans on “Walk It Back.” “Nothing I do makes me feel any different,” he laments on “I’ll Still Destroy You.” On “Quiet Light,” he is in constant confessional mode: “Learning how not to cry / every time there’s another sad unbearable morning / But sometimes there’s nothing I can do.” And on “The Alcott” from Frankenstein, he has Taylor Swift join him in a mantra of self-pity, muttering, “I’ll ruin it all over / I’ll ruin it for you / I’ll ruin it all over / and over / Like I always do.”

The pronouns “I” and “you” are flour in the dough of popular love songs. Most of the National’s stuff include this pairing, though Berninger’s gift was once to gild their interaction with sublime details: that “little something in our lemonade” from “Fake Empire,” the “blue ribbon on my brain” from “Slow Show,” or the wry request from “Lemonworld” to “lay me on the table / put flowers in my mouth.” On recent albums, Berninger’s imagined worlds have collapsed into the relentlessly domestic, his formula consisting of nothing more than “I” plus “you” plus a bleak emotion. A feeling floating idly in a vacuum is no feeling at all, just an object. To resonate, it needs context and association, something to cling to.

Such inner dwindling is most evident when Berninger tries to rhyme with his own past self. “I’ll Still Destroy You” (from Sleep Well Beast) sees him wink and genuflect back to a young version when he sings, “I’m just trying to stay in touch with / anything I’m still in touch with” — a nod back to “I am secretly in love with / everyone that I grew up with” from the earlier “Demons” (Trouble Will Find Me). But notice how the more recent line looks only inward with an excoriating, flaying gaze — a whine of very public desperation. By contrast, the couplet from “Demons” pointed away from its author and toward other people, other loves, memories made less stale by their remembering, all enclosed in the beckoning gesture of sly confession. “Demons” too had the smarts to poke fun at itself, a kind of gothic pastiche with its “bats and buzzards in the sky” and “alligators in the sewers.” Such keen self-awareness was well buried a decade ago, tucked in a squalid little casket with all the good metaphors and a large hunk of talent.

Unlike most pop records and their obsession with carving out a distinct space for every sound, production on the National’s earlier work — especially Boxer and High Violet — was an effort in sublimation: Every texture and instrument blended with its neighbor in a lush, velvety murk of trembling minor chords and arpeggiated piano. Berninger himself once described the sound as feeling like “hot tar” and “loose wool.” But that gorgeous swamp was bucketed out around the time of Sleep Well Beast. Clipped chirps and digital whirs fluttered in. A tangle of dry programmed percussion overtook what had once been slick and purposeful propulsion. The dull throb of electronica intruded on a comfortably organic and analog approach. The three most recent records are glossy things, so unlike their ancestors: clinical, clean, crisp — a derisive bird-flip at the handsome, age-pilled quiltwork that came before.

Each successive album has been slower and more forlorn than its predecessor. The songs have slunk back to the pace of a torpid murder ballad. First Two Pages of Frankenstein only confirms this trend: It’s by far the most modest thing the National have produced, a dawdling and beige stretch of inanity almost completely devoid of pep or vigor; rarely hastening, always diminishing. “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend” (featuring Phoebe Bridgers) and opener “Once Upon a Poolside” (with a cameo from longtime collaborator Sufjan Stevens) both begin in a posture of sag and droop and refuse to rouse themselves into any kind of thematic or musical momentum. Halfway through “Tropic Morning News,” the only energetic track on the album, it becomes apparent that it’s not a National song at all but something pinched from the repertoire of the War on Drugs.

There are flickers and snatches of the Berninger of old, with his japes and wild symbolism still intact — being rescued by his lover from the “customs cops in Hawaii / when I shut down the place with my Japanese novelty bomb” on “New Order T-shirt” or the verse from “Alien” that feels comfortingly vintage, leaning on its own cryptic but redolent imagery instead of fleeing from it:

We’ll go extremely vivid
Buttoned up and unrevealing
I can be your nurse or something
Bring you watermelon nicotine
I can hold a swimmer here
To the shore by a string

Yet this nostalgic glimpse at things past is just a reminder of what’s absent in the present. On Frankenstein, Berninger continues his meander toward plain, unambiguous statements of inward anguish. “I’m here, kicking myself to keep from crying” goes the refrain on “This Isn’t Helping.” Like a poor imitation of earlier uncertainties and worries about being a “middlebrow fuck-up,” “Grease in Your Hair” has him weakly claiming, “The second I stand up, I freeze / My only move here is to fail.” The self-flagellation is so consistent and implacable that around the moment Berninger informs us that “It’s time to take my silent treatment,” you find yourself wishing it were true.

At least on the earlier records, there was the relief of constant and ever-coming crescendos rising to catharsis: Those brass fanfares on “Fake Empire” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” were never anything other than triumphal, while “Terrible Love” was an accelerating thrum of tease, outburst, and payoff. An old trick, to be sure, often deployed by the band in lieu of better ideas, but at least it pointed the way to a lighter ending and some sense of optimism: As Berninger spies in “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” it’s that dawn light breaking beyond the houses. So much character and distinction was lost in the transition. Wedding the glacial march of the songs with Berninger’s morose whining has produced something overwhelmingly oppressive to listen to — a 90-mile wall of watery doom bearing down on whatever residual admiration and adoration was left alive.

Once a cure for melancholy, the National now feel like a cause. Present in First Two Pages of Frankenstein, as in its immediate forerunners, is all the strewn despair and aching morbidity the great work did so well to refuse, the portraits of desire and loss and lust shorn of the comforts of wit and ironic self-regard. Tricked-out and shining with slick new techniques of boredom, the National’s late work is somehow darker in its lyrical pose yet brighter in its aural style — a near-absolute inversion of all that came before. In the end, they turned into everything too many people assumed they always were. And which is worse: to slump into a parody of yourself, or become what your dullest detractors always suspected?

The National Are Now a Parody Act