Excerpted from "Hot Artists" for Artist of the Day feature.
A mere 30 seconds into the National's "Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers" lead singer Matt Berninger already sounds spent.
The Brooklyn, N.Y., quintet's second album begins with "Cardinal Song," a hopeless cautionary tale of modern romance. Berninger narrates the song like someone who constantly waking with a hangover, imparting the kind of advice that only comes from the right combination of too much thinking and too much liquor. "Let her treat you like a criminal," Berninger mumbles, "so you can treat her like a priest."
The drifting violin and spare electronics of "Cardinal Song" give way to "Slipping Husband," a disturbing account of suburban emptiness. "You could have been a legend, but you became a father," sings Berninger. Like Nick Cave, to whom the singer bears an aural resemblance, Berninger treats the most despairing of relationships as something sacred.
The jaunty acoustic guitars and jazzy keyboards of "Slipping Husband" build to a burst of feedback and noise, which creates a tension the album maintains until its midpoint, when the downright nasty "Available" shatters any chance of redemption. A sinister nugget of a break-up song, it sees the National briefly leaving desperation behind, replacing it with a full-on rage that fits somewhere between the Afghan Whigs, Joy Division and Wilco.
"I'm definitely not as angry as the narrator of the song," Berninger says. "I just think it's a song that illustrates an emotion we may sometimes feel. I think anyone writing songs is trying to be honest, unless you're talking about top-40 stuff. A popular love song is written to be this appealing thing that doesn't even try to hint at any of the complicating truths of two people trying to stay together. I'm proud of our songs on that level. We hit a lot of aspects of relationships that mainstream music doesn't touch."
"Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers" was released in October on the independent Brassland Records label, and its 12-song cycle develops like a collection of short stories. Berninger's wandering eye captures more than just broken hearts and cheating spouses. A spurned lover has resorted to buying new outfits in a last-ditch attempt to re-ignite a spark on the brief, keyboard-happy "Fashion Coat" and "Patterns of Fairytales" finds Berninger entrapped in swirling, Bjork-like effects as he revisits past affairs via his music collection.
Three Cincinnati-reared members of the National (multi-instrumentalist brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner and drummer Bryan Devendorf) previously played together in Project Nim. Aaron moved to New York in 1994 to attend Columbia University, and Bryce followed after graduating from Yale.
With the addition Devendorf's brother Scot on guitar and Berninger on vocals, the National initially formed as a way for the members to pass time after work.
"When we went into the studio to record the first album," Berninger says, "we had never even played a show. That album was essentially the birth of this band. That was three years ago."
While the National is still relatively unknown in the U.S., the group has developed a following overseas. The band's European base is French label Talitres Records, and Paris is one city the National has no trouble selling out. It's a fact that made it easy for the 32-year-old Berninger to quit his high-paying tech job.
"My family is still a little worried," Berninger says. "I had a great job in New York, and I actually enjoyed working there. But I couldn't say no when I was asked to go play rock in Paris. I've changed my lifestyle. I moved to a smaller apartment. I don't regret it at all, and as supportive as my parents have been, they probably still think this is a hobby for me. I don't know if they realize I never want a full-time job again."
Yet Berninger is also realistic. The media has turned New York into the music industry's current hotspot -- thanks, in part, to bands such as the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Rapture, the Liars and Longwave -- but Berninger doesn't expect the National to benefit. With most of the National's members around the age of 30, expectations of fame have been tamed.
"We're older than the average rock band that's starting to get attention," Berninger says. "It's nice, though, because we're doing it now just because we have fun doing it. We know the reality of being the Strokes and shooting to the top of MTV is not really how it works. We've been in bands for a long time and have seen nothing happen, so we're OK with nothing happening."