From the perspective of 2014, in which The National are slick, big-selling, Sydney Opera House playing purveyors of gently tumbling emotional trauma clothed in studio velvet, the sound of the same band’s self-titled debut album is an arresting reminder that it wasn’t always thus.
After stints in, variously, a folk-rock band, a band that played Led Zeppelin covers, and a lo-fi Pavement wannabe outfit, the various members of The National pooled their talents in 1999. Platinum status, end of year poll topping, world tours: none were on the agenda for a group of guys happy enough to “noodle around, press record and see what happens”. This casual attitude to the future extended to the band’s web site, named for an early song rather than the band.
After two years of noodling, they had enough tracks to record an album. Partly self-produced, and released on their own Brassland label, The National is at once instantly recognizable, yet also somewhat other: Matt Berninger’s baritone leads from the front - at this stage sounding more cracked and hesitant than on later recordings - while the band lays down americana and alt-country patterns all around. At times The National does little to distinguish itself from the mass of new-millenium americana acts: Pay For Me particularly, with its slide, and insistent, repetitive guitar stabs, could be almost anyone, The Cash Brothers perhaps?
Stranger still, the opening chords of Beautiful Head, the album’s first track, bring to mind Nick Drake’s One of These Things First. Not that anything else of the song does: instead of Drake’s introspection, Berninger, as he does so often, accuses some unknown antagonist - “You’re saying things with your mouth to me that I don’t recognize”.
In the chorus of The Perfect Song, Berninger sings what might as well be The National declaration of intent:
I never try to find you
I hope you don’t remember me
But I hope you’re not alone
And I don’t wanna know what you’re thinking
I’m looking out the window
Just drinking and drinking and drinking
Through the whole album, barely a lyric passes by without reference to a distance or separation, booze, or a combination of the above: “I’m ashamed that I’m ashamed of you” and “Why won’t you leave me quicker?”, from Watching You Well; “Bottle from the duty free, I’ll drink it all across the sea”, from Pay for Me; “I’d do you better than you ever will, when I’m on bitters and Absolut”, from ‘Bitters & Absolut’. When the alcohols aren’t flowing, rain falls, water flows, tears stain; stains run. And on Theory of the Crows, the band raise themselves to a chaotic fury with the working world:
if I forget you
I’ll have nobody left to forget
I guess thats what assholes get
Traded my day light
For a career
At the end, on Anna Freud, there’s the finest example of old and new colliding. The verse is practically spoken-word, the band playing down, but the chorus is curiously playful and bouncy. Its internal contrast is part of what makes The National such a rewarding and revealing album, even more so 13 years and a steadily growing reputation down the line.