The National – Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (2003)

Don’t you hate people who say they were into that cool new band before they were popular?  Don’t you hate people who say they prefer their old stuff better than their new stuff?  Aren’t they such wankers?

Well, I have to own such statements when it comes to The National.  I was a fan of this Brooklyn-ex-Cincinnati band a few albums before they started to really hit the mainstream. And the truth is I do prefer their second and third albums more than what they did since, what made them so popular.

However, and I say this hopefully to avoid accusatory fingers shouting “hipster!”[1], I don’t begrudge the band their success nor feel it remotely necessary to accuse more recent fans of being late-comers and dilettantes.  Those more recent albums are cool, too, and it’s great to see the band touring and selling out shows around the world.[2]

Yet, still, I come back to Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, The National’s sophomore album from 2003.  And, no matter which way I look at it, not matter how much I rate the angular spiky post-punk of Alligator and the moody indie rock of Trouble Will Find Me, this is the album I hold dearest to my heart.

Back in the early years of last decade a few music journalists slapped the label “Americana” on The National, a label that seems bizarre when considering their late-night, dark, updated-Joy Division sound of more recent albums. But on Sad Songs you can hear where they were coming from in trying to stick a catch-all genre to this band’s sound.

Because underlying Matt Berninger’s baritone are slide and acoustic guitars, a bit of moody strings, and some neo-vintage keyboards that aren’t a world away from the same sounds Wilco were playing with during the same period.

Bryce Desner’s sparse, angular guitar and Bryan Devendorf’s enthrallingly syncopated drum beats are also mostly absent; though hinted at now and then.  If it wasn’t for Berninger’s voice, it might even be possible to not hear the band that The National would go on to become.  Yet even Berninger does different things from what someone used to his later croon would expect.  Up to and including a bit of screaming.

It’s the points of difference from later The National that make up my favourite moments on this album.  ‘Thirty’ layers trembling organ over gently plucked guitars and brushed drums, towards a climax of viola and layered harmonised male and female vocals, Berninger plaintively singing that “I don’t have a hawk in my heart / no dumbass dove in my dumbass brain.”

Which immediately explodes into ‘Available,’ where a huge fuzzed bass guitar holds down a wall of guitar, a sound the band’s never touched on before or since. Here Berninger lays out perhaps his most vile, disturbing lyric ever – “how can you blame yourself / when I did everything I wanted to / you just made yourself available” – before he ends the song screaming incoherently with rage and self-loathing.   The late night lonely drunk become something far far more unpleasant.

And then there’s ’90-Mile Water Wall’, my favourite song by The National.   Slide guitar, strummed acoustic guitars, a gentle crooning vocal, and a great big swooping violin providing the musical equivalent of the 90-mile water wall the singer is wishing would sweep him out of the view of the (ex?) lover he’s listening to, but doesn’t want to be around.

And, all the while Berninger’s voice is husky and raw.  His breath wheezes between every line, just within hearing, and his voice sounds slurred.  As if he were singing the song while sitting drunk in a bar, somewhere in the flyover states.

Okay, maybe Americana did suit them a bit, back then.

Beer match: You want something dark, complex, and maybe a little sweet to match this album’s prevailing mood.  Perhaps also something a bit hip and unusual.  Try Rogue’s ‘Hazelnut Brown Nectar’, a warm nutty brown ale.  It’s sweet, and a bit soft, but there’s the bitterness of the hazelnuts underneath just to keep you on your toes.


[1] Whatever that insult is supposed to mean.

[2] But, if I’m honest, I really do think 2010’s High Violet is a very dire, dirge-like and uninteresting album.  Despite it being the one that saw them really hit the mainstream.

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