A mere 30 seconds into the National's "Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers" lead singer Matt Berninger already sounds spent.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 is 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 among 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 Brassland Records, 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.
"The last thing I want is these songs to be thought of as pages from a diary," Berninger says. "Just one perspective in a song is pretty depressing, and kind of pathetic, I think. A lot this album comes from using storytelling and novels as a base for writing songs. I want to create characters and story lines. I always try to think of both of the people in a situation. 'Slipping Father,' for instance, is almost a message from the family to the father. If all I talked about is what I felt, I'd be bored."
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."
AN EXPANDING BRASSLAND
The act's 2001 debut was one of Brassland's first releases, a label created with friend of the band, Alec Hanley Bemis. Bryce, who doubles a member of the Clogs, knew Bemis from their days at Yale. The two became the driving forces behind Brassland, which was started to release albums from the National and the Clogs.
"When we made our first record, we were just trying to get it out and figured the best way to do it was to start a label," Berninger says. "Right now, Brassland is run as a co-op, so the bands are all equal partners. That's a great way to work. Nobody feels cheated, and we're all in this together."
The National's first-effort caught some by surprise. It received rather positive reviews in a number of well-known music publications, and helped Brassland secure a distribution deal with Chicago's Southern Records. The album even peaked the interest of a few larger labels, but the National opted to keep building Brassland, even if it meant struggling to stay out of debt.
"We have a lot of the things a label can offer, so it was the difference between us investing all of our own money, or someone else investing money," Berninger says. "Most of the offers wanted three records plus this one, and we decided that we had worked so hard toward Brassland that in the end we just didn't want to lose control. We're investing all of the band's money into the label, so it will be a long time before we see anything financial come out of this, but we're going to gamble on making it work."
The 28 year-old Bemis, who, in addition to running Brassland is a freelance journalist, says he modeled his company off Chicago labels Touch & Go and Thrill Jockey. "We're a little less staunchly indie rock than some of those places," Bemis says. "We would definitely go for bigger things. A larger label approached the National, and we wanted something that would take Brassland with them. The Clogs and the National are intimately involved. We can't take the legs out of the label by splitting the band's apart."
Additionally, Berninger was weary of making a young band like the National indebted to a large corporation. "All of the pressure is our own, which is great," he says. "On the other hand, not having to worry about the label stuff is very attractive. It'd be nice if we could just focus on the music, but frankly, in order to do that, you give up a lot of power."
THE BENEFIT OF NEW YORK
While the National is still relatively unknown in the U.S., the group has developed a small 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. I was the creative director for a Web design firm, 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 further out in Brooklyn. 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."
Regardless of whether or not the National joins the host of New York acts who have financially gained from being in the right city at the right time, Berninger says the attention focused on the city's so-called scene has still helped his band.
"We've never felt connected to any scene," Berninger says. "Yet it motivated us. I remember seeing the Strokes at Don Hill's, this tiny little club, and six months later they were the hottest band in the world. That's exciting. It made us want to work harder. I can't say we didn't work hard on the first record, but it was casually recorded in a basement. We spent more time making the songs what we wanted them to be this time, and we definitely wanted to make sure people heard what we were doing."
The National recently concluded a slate of U.S. tour dates and will begin a European jaunt Nov. 3 in Paris. For more information, visit the Brassland Web site.