Part of the joy of being a music fan / nerd / bore is that from time to time you get a kick out of introducing a new band to someone and seeing them fall in love with that band. Perhaps a bigger part, though, is being given new music when you weren’t expecting it, and falling in love with it in a heart-beat. Or a snare, a smart lyric, and a fade to nothing but drummer and vocalist:
I think this place is full of spies
I think they’re onto me
Didn’t anybody, didn’t anybody tell you?
Didn’t anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?
Allowing yourself just the briefest of moments to kick yourself for not already knowing this music inside out, for not already having given yourself this moment of perfect joy when their debut was released however many years ago, you settle down and wait for the magic to unfold.
Not forgetting, of course, to say a silent thank you to a good friend.
Alligator was my introduction to The National, and what a way to start. Secret Meeting doesn’t waste a beat laying the template for the album: after two and a half releases on which there was always a feeling that something was being held back, this time The National leave nothing on the studio floor, throwing all their energy into 48 minutes of kinetic frenzy. At times a breath would be blessed relief, but the songs’ structures often don’t allow such luxuries. Matt Berninger is a fecund lyrical well and he isn’t about to pass up the chance to spill his mind: there are probably moments you’d call verses, and moments you’d call choruses, perhaps even a middle eight here or there, but overall the feeling is of someone whispering sinister somethings at you in a steady rhythmical fashion, as on the album’s elliptical middle section - , Looking for Astronauts, Daughters of the Soho Riots, and ‘Baby We’ll Be Fine’.
The last of these reaches a dramatic and emotional peak because of, or despite, Berninger’s ultra-weary delivery, his reassurance convincing no-one:
Say “Look at me
Baby, we’ll be fine
All we gotta do is be brave and be kind”
Bravery and kindness rarely exist in the tear-stained world of regret that The National inhabit. Even if they did, what hope would they give? “You turned me good and God-fearing”, Berninger sings, on Abel - “well, tell me what am I supposed to do with that?” - “my mind’s not right” his half-yelled conclusion.
Alligator is shot through with individual moments of greatness - the unexpected chord change in and out of sections of Karen, Bryan Devendorf’s drumming propelling Lit Up through and into its choruses, and the patterns he weaves through The Geese of Beverly Road, lyrics that should by rights be cumbersome but somehow work “throw from your window your record collection” from Looking for Astronauts), the freaked out paranoia of Friend of Mine.
And at the last, Mr. November - a live set closing anthem in waiting, with another dose of who-are-you-kidding affirmations (“I’m the new blue blood
I’m the great white hope) and possibly the saddest acceptance of reality:
I wish that I believed in fate, I wish I didn’t sleep so late
I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders
Everyone needs a friend who can, with a recommendation, mix-tape, CD or playlist, make life instantly better. I want to be that friend. I want you to listen to Alligator. Believe me, we’ll both get a kick out of it.