The National doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for headphone listening, but such treatment reveals their strengths - the intricate guitar interplay, the subtle piano textures and the cracks and inflections of Matt Berninger’s voice.
While we’re on the topic, I don’t think anyone is arguing that Berninger’s voice is classic - not in the traditional sense anyway. His baritone drawl is more character than classic technique and barely holds up live. However, I don’t think many other voices could pull off lines like “Karen, can you pull up a chair, fuck me and pour me a drink?” or “I’m a birthday candle in a circle of black girls”. Sometimes the lines are almost as bad as Coldplay lyrics (almost), but I feel that Berninger has big enough balls to pull them off (actually I think I stole this comparison from someone. Yup, I did).
The narratives he gives voice to are mysterious, intimate and completely alluring to me. It feels like you’re listening in on a phone call, reading the draft of a memoir or eavesdropping on a conversation between old friends at the pub.
The National are often accused of being a mopey, depressing band (much like one of my favourite other bands funnily enough). Heck, they even called one of their albums ‘Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers”. This is undeniable - most of the songs are shrouded in neuroticism, occasionally dipped in paranoia.
There are the cathartic releases though. ‘All The Wine’ feels like a victory anthem for an alcoholic’s night out - charming, confident and brimming with charm (for a limited time only). ‘Mr November’ was used in one of Obama’s campaigns, and fittingly so - joyous, passionate and almost desperate conviction given full voice.
They do feel like an American band to me. That could be because of the overt references ("you know you have a permanent piece of my medium-sized American heart") or because of the sarcastic tone inherent in lines like that. I feel like they are simultaneously paying tribute to and paying the shit out of America.
If all the elements of the National were stuck in a house fire, the drumming might well be the thing I’d save.
If i think about this band logically or try and explain them to someone else, they end up sounding like a boring band. - unconventional drumming, intertwining guitar arpeggios, ‘Into My Arms’ era Nick Cave vocals and tales of middle class quarter life crisis. However, when I listen to them, it feels so comforting, so intimate - like I’m on the other end of the phone, or like Matt Berlinger’s just bought me another whiskey.