What makes the magic that is the National? The songs you say? Perhaps. There are certainly some gems within their discography, strongly (songly?) written melodies and lyrically deft and wise. Is it their persona as fiercely independent intelligent indie outsiders breaking into the mainstream? Their almost losers status made good does make them golden and certainly appealing. But more than anything, what makes the National them and uniquely them is how in the interplay between abilities and philosophies they produce records that reflect their individuality as well as a uniquely collective vision.
Think about Matt. Matt’s skills are his considerable ability to write non sequitur lyrics (that somehow add up to more than the sum of their individual parts), his charismatic live performances and his general all around handsome-manness, not his vocal prowess. He’s a rocker and a shouter and he’s all about emotion and fury (and not a little bit of well caged drunkenness) and completely unlike anyone else in the band. And for sure, his voice has some pretty strict limitations, especially in range and expression (either mournful or howling). But beyond the obvious limitations Matt’s voice has, it does have a nice tone, especially in evoking world weariness and a certain haunted restless dissatisfaction; said milieu suiting the National’s musical aesthetic perfectly. Think about it, if Matt’s voice were an instrument of Bubleian grandeur, it would overwhelm all the other aspects of the band. It is a case of limitations becoming strength. Listen to the guitars in “All the Wine” supporting Matt’s voice, giving the illusion of range. It’s the guitars and bass providing the color in the chorus while Matt’s haughty baritone is singing the hell out of the beat. Nothing really traditional in terms of arrangement, but everything perfectly balanced to brilliant net affect.
It is the guitar work of the brothers Dessner that give most of the National songs their humming power. The carefully accented guitar filigrees and angular guitar lines expand the melodic reach of the compositions, extending the Beringer baritone from black and white into vivid Technicolor. “Wasp’s Nest” is barely a monotone of a melody but with the ringing guitars cupping Matt’s voice, the song soars with a generous sprinkling of sugary Christmas bell beats. “About Today” is yet another perfect example of this balance between monobaritone and chiming guitars (with perfectly drawn drum beats providing just a little hope to move the hopeless song into morning). But that’s not to say the guitar solo doesn’t have a place in the National record arsenal. “Abel” (tied with blood buzz for my favorite national song) pins all it’s promise on guitar god work (and Matt’s most unhinged vocal ever). Would that the Dessners became more regularly unhinged in their guitar playing. But again, would we want Matt to have to shout all the time to keep the balance? And what would the National be if they had to be a four by four rhythm section providing structural support for guitar god roof raising? (pretty much any other neglected indie band that had their moment in the sun, I’d wager)
Keyboards in National songs usually play a lot of the same rolls the guitar figures do, providing melody and breadth, but staying in the background for the most part. However, there are a few National songs that use piano more predominantly if unconventionally, rolling out rhythmic figures and loping chords against the outlines of songs like a tuned drum.
Really though, it’s the rhythm section and most specifically the drums that are the not so secret weapon in any National song. Whether it’s the geese in Beverly Hills, fake empires, or buzzing in Ohio, the drumming and bass provide the beating heart to every National song. Intricate, propulsive and always detailed, the brainy drumming never settles on the obvious beat or approach. The bass playing perfectly jumps from melodic to foundational support on a dime. The rhythm sections grants a depth and complexity to the simplest National tune. The brothers Devendorf’s work has become progressively more pronounced in the mix as the band has grown and has become more assured and complex. So integral to the National “sound” is the drumming that it’s practically in a dead heat with Matt’s voice (another slightly less intricately syncopated monotone) as the single most identifiable aspect of the National sound.
Now go and listen to your favorite National song. Listen for the guitar line or piano line that opens the song, wait a beat for the insistent hesitant poly playful drumming contradicting or chasing the melody line around the center of the song, listen for the burdened hum of Matt’s vocals at the center of the swirl. The order of introduction, the keys and the time signature might change just a little, but the elements will all be there. It’s only a question of the mix and how high the sky goes and how deep the chaos gets. It’s always a universe onto itself. It’s a National song.