Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every the National Album

by Bill Lambusta

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

I first stumbled upon the National in 2009 after overhearing a conversation about how cool they were (of course, one member of that conversation was my cohost and knower of all cool music Brian). Even though Boxer (their breakthrough) was out, I started by first listening to Alligator. I definitely saw the allure, but I was yet to be blown away. I got Boxer a few months later, and, although I loved several of the songs, the band’s idiosyncrasies had yet to make sense to me. High Violet came out, and I purchased it immediately, but it didn’t really have the summertime vibe to match its release date. Then I spent a September weekend driving up to the Pocono Mountains in PA, listening to the National on the way up. Something about the prefect chill weather and the perfect chill music suddenly unlocked all of it for me. It quickly became my next favorite thing as I devoured every detail and note of the music over the next year. I was inspired, not just to make music but to love music because I got to hear it in a totally new way again, something few bands could ever make me do.

The National (2001, Brassland)

C

The National is a band that has gotten better with each album. Despite the reliance on alt country acoustic arrangements (“Watching You Well,” “American Mary”) and missing Bryce Dessner’s complementary guitar attack, the DNA of the band’s iconic indie rock template is present on their first album. But the band still didn’t quite have the same clear creative vision found on their later work. Unfortunately, the biggest criticism of this work is singer Matt Berninger’s unsure voice. Although he occasionally shines as a truly unique frontman (“Cold Girl Fever,” “Son”), he hadn’t quite figured out how to use his unusual baritone.

Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003, Brassland)

B-

With the addition of producers Paul Heck and Peter Katis, along with the complete lineup in place, the band started moving toward their now-iconic sonic landscape. Although they occasionally fell back on the old tendency toward folk tinged numbers with “90-Mile Water Wall” and “It Never Happened,” the angular guitars on “Murder Me Rachael” and “Available” make a dynamic impact. The back half of the album hints at the subtle and dense arrangements ahead for the band as programmed beats and a Fender Rhodes are introduced. Not a lot of the tracks truly stand out amongst the band’s list of truly great songs, but you’re unlikely to find a more beautiful and lyrically confusing love song than the closer “Lucky You.”

Alligator (2005, Beggars Banquet)

A-

From the very first downbeat on the opening track it’s easy to hear that the band had finally gotten it figured out. Understated alt guitars are underpinned by drummer Bryan Devendorf finally letting loose as his circular, complex rhythms are featured on nearly every track. Berninger sounds especially confident as he seemed to become a master of off the wall imagery (“Secret Meeting” and “Looking for Astronauts”) and irony (“All the Wine”) since their last release. “Daughters of the Soho Riots” shows off the band understanding how to incorporate a more delicate acoustic number into their sound without sounding like alt country. And the orchestral arrangements courtesy of Padma Newsome brought a welcome depth on a song like “The Geese of Beverly Road.”

Boxer (2007, Beggars Banquet)

A-

Honestly, the rest of the tracks could have been nothing but Nickelback covers, but any album that starts with a song as good as “Fake Empire,” a meticulously arranged 4-over-3 polyrhythm anthem, is going to be an immediately admired and respected work. Luckily, songs like “Green Gloves,” “Slow Show,” and “Start a War” make this an immensely listenable album from a band nearing the peak of its prowess. Many will point to Boxer as the best of the band’s career, and it’s certainly the one that put them on the map as one of the most influential bands of the last decade, but even ending on the sublime “Gospel” doesn’t quite redeem the final third of the album as it wanes, creating a slightly less coherent work overall.

High Violet (2010, 4AD)

A

High Violent is the definition of the term “mood piece.” Despite this, it is also the National’s most balanced and consistent record. Although it lacks the standard roller coaster energy of classically sequenced albums, the slow motion opener “Terrible Love” provides the right perspective for the rest of the experience. “Afraid of Everyone” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” anchor the center (make sure to check out the Letterman performance of the former on Youtube), and the elegiac “England” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” close out the album. The production is nearly perfect throughout as complementary guitars, pianos, and orchestral arrangements weave together complex harmonic textures.

Trouble Will Find Me (2013, 4AD)

B+

Although I stand by my earlier statement that the band improved with each album, evidenced by the number of highly listenable songs in odd time signatures and Bryce Dessner taking on the task of orchestral arrangements himself, this album suffers from being a little overlong with a couple of forgettable tunes (“Fireproof” and “Slipped”) and the overly repetitive “Pink Rabbits.” Additionally, as the band continues to flex its genre-defining indie rock muscles, showing off that they are, in fact, masters of their craft (check out “I Need My Girl” or “Demons” for all the proof you need), there’s no real sense of any progression on this album. I’m kind of fine with that, though. If the band did nothing but put out a handful of Trouble Will Find Mes for the rest of their career, I’d have no problem spending lovely fall afternoons, sitting in a deck chair, wearing a warm flannel with my earbuds blasting these kinds of tunes into my head.