Saturday, 5 June 2010

A funny thing happened on the way to The National

Mflow’s tagline ‘Discovery is the best thing in music’ may or may not true, but I’ve just made a discovery myself – that the best sort of music discovery can be discovering the music that you already know. That’s a lot of discoveries in one sentence, so let me explain.

I was all set to skip the new National album. I was just going to let it pass, on account of having too much currently stacked up in the ‘recently acquired’ CD pile-up - and the download equivalent (a queue?).

Then I succumbed, having read too many glowing reviews, and put it on order from Amazon, but with self-calibrated expectations. I say this because, though I am a fan of The National (having first discovered them via their wonderful track “About Today” on an Uncut magazine cover-mount) I’ve found them to be a band of great promise if not quite the accomplished article on delivery.

I bought their previous two records “Alligator” and “Boxer” and found them both to contain great moments (notably on Boxer – “Guest Room”, “Fake Empire” and “Mistaken For Strangers”) but overall, patchy (but, aggrieved National fans, read on). I also once bought three tickets to one of the band’s shows at The Astoria on the “Boxer” tour and coaxed two friends along, eulogising about this great new band I’d discovered.

When they opened that gig with “Guest Room” I felt vindicated and all like the great “A&R” man (it sounded absolutely splendid), but the rest of the gig was somewhat marred by singer Matt Berninger’s apparent discomfort on stage. You can actually hear more about his stage-fright issues via a Guardian podcast here (small aside – what do you do when an artist on the cusp of mainstream success and potentially huge live shows – suffers from lack of stage presence? - I can’t see many artists taking much to a suggestion of stagecraft ‘coaching’).

So, I thought I’d skip ‘High Violet’. Thank god I didn’t. I only really got to play it properly because I was travelling (back from the South West) and was in a bit ‘phased out’ (after a disappointing business meeting). For those reasons, I set the album to play on repeat – and just let it run & run (four-five times over maybe) until it kind of got inside my head.

Three weeks later and it’s still there, rattling around. In fact I only really came up for air by re-visiting their previous two albums – both of which now suddenly connect with me much more than they did originally. Alligator especially, is a real treat, as it turns out.

Somehow I now ‘get’ The National. I’ve got beyond the moody baritone ‘miserabilists’ stage and moved on to appreciate the tightly-wound core of fine drumming, bass and guitar, the finely detailed, layered, textured sounds (including wonderfully understated use of piano, strings and brass), the oddly-affecting, existential lyrics and at last, the strained emotional delivery of Matt Berninger’s vocals. And more than that, his superb phrasing.

It all makes sense – and on High Violet manages to exceed the sum of all these wonderful parts – through having better tunes, with better songs – Berninger’s lyrics now more effective in connecting real-life stories with the weird inner-dialogues – effectively making him a fully-paid up member of the Genuine Pop Music Poets Society.

“Someone send a runner for the weather that I’m under for the feeling that I lost today”, for example, from ‘England’ (for me the album’s pinnacle track, and my self-adopted national world cup theme. Was that really ‘England’ playing in background on some recent world cup BBC coverage? I think it was). Or perhaps take this one, from single Bloodbuzz Ohio: “I still owe money, to the money, to the money I owe” – that’s a clever commentary on the recent financial crisis if you want my opinion. My favourite though is from Lemonworld, where that songs protagonist declares he “left my heart to the army, the only sentimental thing I could think of”. It rouses.

But why am I telling you this on Juggernaut, without due consideration for the industry? Well it actually did get me pondering on both the demand side and the supply side of things actually.

On the demand side, as with Mflow for example – we’ve become somewhat absorbed, perhaps even obsessed with, ‘discovering’ new music, with gaining ‘access’ to it, and with the ‘acquisition’ of it. It strikes me these experiences all pale with actually listening, and forming a deeper relationship with the music than you thought might be possible initially. It’s like discovering a new author and then revisiting all his or her other books, with a renewed, re-ignited pleasure. You can find yourself thanking your lucky stars, just for the serendipity of it all. Besides, the album would never have entered my consciousness in the way that it has, without that first bought of repeated listening.

On the supply side, The National’s story amounts to the way it should be for music artists and their development, does it not? ‘High Violet’ is the Band’s fifth album and represents a sure, steady growth creatively and now commercially as well. It’s refreshing, re-assuring even, that we can still witness artists in a steady ascendancy like this. Isn’t this how it used to be? I would wish the same on The Local Natives, or The Temper Trap – or any other type of band with the apparent talent and capability to arrive where The National has.

Has it got something to do with being on an indie label rather than a major labels? Perhaps, except there are plenty of indie bands on majors with what seems like longevity and ascendancy too. Most notably Elbow (though a partial 'rescue' job was done there), Kings of Leon (now so big it's hard to think of them as 'indie' but they are essentially) and others.

But The National's success seems partly down to the fact that the band didn’t get too popular too soon - that they had time to become this good. With ‘High Violet’, The National has indeed been allowed to bloom.