16 Songs, 1 Hour 3 Minutes

EDITORS’ NOTES

“I think everybody was ready to take a hiatus, pull the shades down for a year or so,” The National frontman Matt Berninger tells Apple Music of his band’s state of mind at the end of their tour for 2017’s Grammy-winning Sleep Well Beast. “Everyone in the band was exhausted and had no intention of diving back into a record at all. But Mike Mills showed up and had an idea, and then the idea just kept getting more exciting.” Mills—the Oscar-nominated writer and director behind 20th Century Women, and not, it can’t be stressed enough, the former R.E.M. bassist—reached out to Berninger with the intention of maybe directing a video for the band, but that soon blossomed into a much more ambitious proposition: Mills would use some tracks that didn’t find their way onto Sleep Well Beast as the springboard for a short film project.

That film—also called I Am Easy to Find—features Oscar winner Alicia Vikander portraying a unnamed woman from birth to death, a life story told in picaresque black-and-white subtitled snippets, to the swells of The National’s characteristically dramatic music. Those subtitles in turn informed new songs and inspired the band to head from touring straight into making another full album, right when they should have had their toes in sand. “All the song bits and lyric ideas and emotional places and stuff that we were deep into all went into the same big crock pot,” Berninger says. “We knew there would be a 25-minute film and a record, but it's not like one was there to support or accompany the other.”

Just as the film is about nothing more and nothing less than an examination of one person’s entire existence, the album is The National simultaneously at their most personal and most far-flung. Don’t be fooled by the press photos showing five guys; though the band has been increasingly collaborative and sprawling over its two-decade run, never has the reach of the National Cinematic Universe been so evident. Berninger is still nominally the lead singer and focal point, but on none of the album’s 16 tracks is he the only singer, ceding many of the album’s most dramatic moments to a roster of female vocalists including Gail Ann Dorsey (formerly of David Bowie’s band), Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables of This Is the Kit, Lisa Hannigan, and Mina Tindle, with additional assists from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Berninger’s wife Carin Besser, who has been contributing lyrics to National songs for years, had a heavier hand. Mills himself serves as a hands-on producer, reassembling parts of songs at will with the band’s full blessing, despite never having done anything like that before in his life.

Despite this decentralization, it still feels like a cohesive National album—in turns brooding and bombastic, elegiac and euphoric, propelled by jittery rhythms and orchestral flourishes. But it is also a busy tapestry of voices and ideas, all in the name of exploring identity and what it means to be present and angry and bewildered at a tumultuous time. “There's a shaking off all the old tropes and patterns and ruts,” Berninger says. “Women are sick and tired of how they are spoken about or represented. Children are rebelling against the packages that they're forced into—and it's wonderful. I never questioned the package that I was supposed to walk around in until my thirties.”

The album’s default mood is uneasy lullaby, epitomized by the title track, “Hairpin Turns,” “Light Years,” and the woozily logorrheic, nearly seven-minute centerpiece “Not in Kansas.” This gravity makes the moments that gallop, relatively speaking—“Where Is Her Head,” the purposefully gender-nonspecific “Rylan,” and the palpitating opener “You Had Your Soul with You”—feel all the more urgent.

The expanded cast might be slightly disorienting at first, but that disorientation is by design—an attempt to make the band’s music and perspective feel more universal by working in concert with other musicians and a film director. “This is a packaging of the blurry chaos that creates some sort of reflection of it, and seeing a reflection of the chaos through some other artist's lens makes you feel more comfortable inside it,” says Berninger. “Other people are in this chaos with me and shining lights into corners. I'm not alone in this.”

Mastered for iTunes

EDITORS’ NOTES

“I think everybody was ready to take a hiatus, pull the shades down for a year or so,” The National frontman Matt Berninger tells Apple Music of his band’s state of mind at the end of their tour for 2017’s Grammy-winning Sleep Well Beast. “Everyone in the band was exhausted and had no intention of diving back into a record at all. But Mike Mills showed up and had an idea, and then the idea just kept getting more exciting.” Mills—the Oscar-nominated writer and director behind 20th Century Women, and not, it can’t be stressed enough, the former R.E.M. bassist—reached out to Berninger with the intention of maybe directing a video for the band, but that soon blossomed into a much more ambitious proposition: Mills would use some tracks that didn’t find their way onto Sleep Well Beast as the springboard for a short film project.

That film—also called I Am Easy to Find—features Oscar winner Alicia Vikander portraying a unnamed woman from birth to death, a life story told in picaresque black-and-white subtitled snippets, to the swells of The National’s characteristically dramatic music. Those subtitles in turn informed new songs and inspired the band to head from touring straight into making another full album, right when they should have had their toes in sand. “All the song bits and lyric ideas and emotional places and stuff that we were deep into all went into the same big crock pot,” Berninger says. “We knew there would be a 25-minute film and a record, but it's not like one was there to support or accompany the other.”

Just as the film is about nothing more and nothing less than an examination of one person’s entire existence, the album is The National simultaneously at their most personal and most far-flung. Don’t be fooled by the press photos showing five guys; though the band has been increasingly collaborative and sprawling over its two-decade run, never has the reach of the National Cinematic Universe been so evident. Berninger is still nominally the lead singer and focal point, but on none of the album’s 16 tracks is he the only singer, ceding many of the album’s most dramatic moments to a roster of female vocalists including Gail Ann Dorsey (formerly of David Bowie’s band), Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables of This Is the Kit, Lisa Hannigan, and Mina Tindle, with additional assists from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Berninger’s wife Carin Besser, who has been contributing lyrics to National songs for years, had a heavier hand. Mills himself serves as a hands-on producer, reassembling parts of songs at will with the band’s full blessing, despite never having done anything like that before in his life.

Despite this decentralization, it still feels like a cohesive National album—in turns brooding and bombastic, elegiac and euphoric, propelled by jittery rhythms and orchestral flourishes. But it is also a busy tapestry of voices and ideas, all in the name of exploring identity and what it means to be present and angry and bewildered at a tumultuous time. “There's a shaking off all the old tropes and patterns and ruts,” Berninger says. “Women are sick and tired of how they are spoken about or represented. Children are rebelling against the packages that they're forced into—and it's wonderful. I never questioned the package that I was supposed to walk around in until my thirties.”

The album’s default mood is uneasy lullaby, epitomized by the title track, “Hairpin Turns,” “Light Years,” and the woozily logorrheic, nearly seven-minute centerpiece “Not in Kansas.” This gravity makes the moments that gallop, relatively speaking—“Where Is Her Head,” the purposefully gender-nonspecific “Rylan,” and the palpitating opener “You Had Your Soul with You”—feel all the more urgent.

The expanded cast might be slightly disorienting at first, but that disorientation is by design—an attempt to make the band’s music and perspective feel more universal by working in concert with other musicians and a film director. “This is a packaging of the blurry chaos that creates some sort of reflection of it, and seeing a reflection of the chaos through some other artist's lens makes you feel more comfortable inside it,” says Berninger. “Other people are in this chaos with me and shining lights into corners. I'm not alone in this.”

Mastered for iTunes
TITLE TIME

Ratings and Reviews

3.9 out of 5
133 Ratings

133 Ratings

Taviffs ,

The National Have My Soul With Them

Thirteen years ago, when I was in college, my older brother gifted me a hand-me-down PC that, fortunately for me, had a wealth of music already loaded onto iTunes. The first of those albums, in alphabetical order, was Alligator by the National.

I was instantly in love with their sound—rich vocals; layers of poetry that give you something new to chew on with each listen; pulsing rhythms, complex yet simple and natural as the beating of a human heart; guitar and bass lines that talk to each other and complement both each other and the songs without ever being too showy or over-the-top; moments of beauty everywhere, both subtle and triumphant—this magic continues on their latest record, in my opinion their finest since 2007’s Boxer (my personal favorite, though it’s tough to choose a favorite).

From the single releases alone, I hear everything that makes the National great, along with some new compositional directions and fresh lyrical mysteries to traverse. And this time around, Matt Berninger’s backbone vocals, deep and dedicated, are surrounded by a chorus of supporting female vocalists, breathing new life into literally every song.

“You Had Your Soul With You” features thundering drum beats, reminiscent of the adrenaline surge and career highlight “Mr. November” that I blasted repeatedly in my college apartment room all those years ago, paired with the sort of blips and swells found throughout 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, and melodic undertones both haunting and strangely uplifting; top all that off with a gorgeous string section and the powerfully poignant guest vocals from Gail Ann Dorsey in the song’s breakdown and climax, and you have what could be the perfect leadoff single. I may no longer be blasting the track in my college apartment, but even as I rock my infant to sleep in our nursery in the dead of the night, the song is just as exciting and energetic at low volume sober as “Mr. November” was after a dorm party and six beers.

“Light Years” finds the National in a place we haven’t quite heard them before, but they could easily always have been. A quiet, straightforward piano ballad with not-so-straightforward lyrics, Berninger, without overdoing anything and never trying to sound like anyone but himself, seems to be searching for someone whom he “was always ten feet behind” and “will always be light years away” from. As an audience, we can think of that person for whom we have deep and persistent affection, but perhaps, due to circumstances beyond our control, cannot ever seem to catch up with. Maybe you hear something different, but that’s what makes so much of the National’s work wonderful. Lyrically, they never seem to be forcing the listener into a corner with their meaning—we have sensory language and universal human emotions to work with, but there is no absolute “right” way to interpret the song.

In “Hairpin Turns” Berninger examines a relationship in which he is “always arguing” but somehow, even if not reaching any greater understanding, arrives at a deeper and even more unambiguous love. The song reminds us, much in the way that EL VY songs like “It’s a Game” and “No Time to Crank the Sun” have done, that slower tempo need not equal uninteresting or uninspired. The simple refrain, “What are we going through?” answered by rising and and falling pianos and fueled by alternating major and minor chord changes, is equal parts thought-provoking and bone-chilling. We may not always find ourselves where we expect, but there is a strange comfort in the familiarity of our disagreements; and just as we are finding comfort in the familiarity of the arrangement in a National song, we are still finding new surprises in how a human voice can make harmony with a strange, new chord.

So, if it is truly just “more of the same” to put melody and voice ahead of trendiness and empty-headed anger; to strive for something deeper than the superficial you-broke-up-with-me-I-hate-you’s and the hey-I-found-another-way-to-trip-up-autotunes of the world; to freely associate imagery with sounds while exploring the complexities of the human experience; to find beauty in simplicity and accessibility without settling for simplemindedness or resigning ourselves to boredom; to piece together musical and lyrical arrangements both poignant and uplifting, without ever forcing you to feel strictly happy nor sad about it—if this is more of the same, I’ll gladly take it.

All is well in my world as long as the The National are making records like this.

Marie Cadell ,

Weakest One Yet

Let me start by saying that the National are one of the best bands out there. They’ve been putting out good solid records for ages. They’ve set the bar high for themselves. These new songs aren't awful they just seem forgettable. I can’t see myself playing these for ages like the rest of the Nationals stuff. These early singles feel like B-sides.

Moniker is taken ,

why hide matt?

The lead singer of the national has a distinct voice. When you hear it, you know what you're listening to. So why did they work so hard to hide his voice behind several generic female singers? I don't know what they were thinking. This is their worst album in my opinion, and it's incredibly disappointing following their last.

Edit*
After listening to it some more, I'm taking off another star. This is an untenable disaster. I'm actually finding myself angry. Angry that I trusted this band enough to blind buy the album. What were they thinking? What is this garbage? Was it the band or the producer that thought it would be a good idea to bury Matt behind other singers in so many songs? Someone messed up, and then I messed up when I bought this without previewing the songs.

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