Just before the end of Slipping Husband, the second track of The National’s second album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, Matt Berninger loses it in a very, well, a very Berninger sort of way. It doesn’t exactly come out of nowhere - the remorse that gives rise to anger, plus of course the obligatory booze, the relationship turned sour, the calling cards are all in place. But if you’re not expecting it, and if you’ve lived your life in a forward direction, and come to Slipping Husband from the rough and ready but for the most part restrained mood of The National two years earlier, then you might just get a thrilling shock at hearing Matt Berninger cutting loose so fiercely he almost silences himself, like the nightmare screams that won’t sound.
If it comes as a surprise, though, it’s as much because it’s a rabid yell that you might have expected to hear on that debut album, but didn’t. Where the band were loose, and the production rustic, Berninger was - if not exactly controlled - restrained when he could have been forgiven for letting rip. But now we know what it takes to get him there, it’s just a pity we don’t go there more often on Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. The default National setting is more one of resignation than revenge - rifling through mini-bars, drinking home alone, or setting up barstools, stirring thoughtlessly, staring into a cube of ice as condensation clings a serviette to a surface.
Seldom has an onrushing force of nature been so calmly received as in 90-Mile Water Wall:
I’m waiting for a 90-mile water wall
To take me out of your view
I’m looking for a trap door trigger
To drop me out of your view
A slide guitar represents the pathetic pointlessness of the surge, barely impacting as it hits. As the waters recede, a violin solo, a crushing emotional emptiness.
The whole of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers seems to ask a single question: Why are you doing this to me, and what do you expect me to do about it? In other words, it’s not my fault. You got me drunk, alcohol got me drunk, but I’m ok to drive, I think, but no good for anything else. I got old; I was never beautiful in any case. From Lucky You:
You coulda made a safer bet
But what you break is what you get
You wake up in the bed you make
I think you made a big mistake
You own me
There’s nothing you can do
You own me
You own me
Not that it’s all calm acceptance - Murder Me Rachael and Available are harsh and abrasive, Berninger cutting loose, venting again. The National have clearly added Rock to their effortlessly blended sea of influences.
But when it’s not angry, it’s beautiful, oh so beautiful - the swirling conclusion to Thirsty, the chiming chorus to Fashion Coat, the little twiddles (technical term) that glue Lucky You together.
Perhaps one day The National can reboot Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers and re-release it as Angry songs for Filthy Fuckers. Then again, there’s more than one way to be angry, and no-one does it with grace quite like The National.