Over the last decade and a half, The National have built their own niche. No band can match them for self-defeated, detail-oriented introspection. In frontman Matt Berninger, they have someone who can turn the most mundane of observations into a beautiful turn of phrase. And these are expressed through sombre, grandly-arranged songs equally capable of spitting fireballs as they are of burrowing deep into the human psyche. The latest case in point, new single ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.’
They’ve gone from a bunch of unknowns on the brink of quitting to arena-filling giants. Along the way, millions have found themselves identifying with the band’s uniquely crafted tales of misery, self-doubt and bouts of inflated ego. It took a long time to get there, but they’re universally-loved giants these days.
Here’s a look at their finest moments so far:
10. ‘I Should Live in Salt’
Matt Berninger’s guilty conscience tends to guide the direction on most National songs. For the opening track on 2013’s ‘Trouble Will Find Me’, he grandiosely apologises to younger brother Tom. During the band’s ‘High Violet’ tour, Tom – a struggling filmmaker – came on board as a roadie, while also filming what would become the ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ documentary. The Berninger brothers’ relationship thawed on the road, and was judged by both to have been a foolish mistake. But when the tour ended, Matt penned ‘I Should Live in Salt’, a song that learns to accept the pair’s differences.
Best lyric: “You’re not that much like me, you should know me better than that.”
9. ‘Murder Me Rachael’
Material dating back pre-2005 album ‘Alligator’ rarely gets a shout. The National themselves aren’t prone to referencing 2003 LP ‘Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers’. But ‘Murder Me Rachael’ is an essential glimpse into what would become the band’s trademarks – savagely honest, twisted lyricism and Bryce Dessner’s razor-edged guitar parts, which capture the same frustration Berninger’s putting across behind the microphone.
Best lyric: “Her pretty little ribbons / Her pretty little name / Sew it in my skin.”
8. ‘Mistaken for Strangers’
Four years on from ‘Murder Me Rachael’, by this point The National had mastered their pent-up, anxious side. Dessner’s guitars are like juggernauts towering over the rest of the song. Berninger, meanwhile, is wrapped up in lamenting on lost friends and years rolling by without warning. Some things change, some things degrade and some things stay the same.
Best lyric: “You wouldn’t want an angel watching over / Surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t wanna watch.”
7. ‘Looking for Astronauts’
Few songwriters focus on relationships like Berninger can. ‘Looking for Astronauts’ captures what it’s like for two people to be with each other for several years, only to get ahead of themselves. “We’re out looking for astronauts… Isn’t it a little too late for this?” It might sound glum on the surface, but there’s a devoted romance in there somewhere.
Best lyric: “You know you have a permanent piece / Of my medium-sized American heart.”
6. ‘Slow Show’
Ever found yourself at a party wanting to be literally anywhere else? ‘Slow Show’ pits itself in that kind of scene. “Standing at the punch table, swallowing punch,” Berninger is fidgety, anxious, surrounded by people he doesn’t know and looking for the exit door. But what starts as a story of distress soon evolves into a simple, loved-up gesture. “I wanna hurry home to you / Put on a slow, dumb show for you,” he sings in his trademark drunken drawl.
Best lyric: “You know I dreamed about you / For twenty-nine years before I saw you.”
5. ‘Terrible Love’
There are two equally loved versions of ‘Terrible Love’, the opening track on 2010’s ‘High Violet’. One is a cymbal-crashing, uptight clamour – the other is a more strung out, punchy take, which appears on an expanded edition of the album. Both are astounding in their own right, expressing loneliness in all-caps fireworks.
Best lyric: “It takes an ocean not to break.”
4. ‘Mr. November’
Save for the gorgeous swansong of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, most National sets close with the abrupt, enraged thud of ‘Mr. November’. Penned about the 2004 U.S. election and written partly from the perspective of Democrat candidate John Kerry, it captures the pressure of having to perform and be someone for all people at once.
Best lyric: “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.”
3. ‘All the Wine’
‘All the Wine’’s three minutes and 15 seconds somehow capture the exact point where, three pints in, you decide you’re the absolute bee’s knees. “I’m a perfect piece of ass” declares Berninger, staggering to his feet. “I’m a festival. I’m a parade.” Even for just a short while, he’s able to throw his shortcomings to one side and stand among giants.
Best lyric: “I’m in a state / Nothing can touch us my love.”
2. ‘Fake Empire’
After 2006’s ‘Alligator’ caused a minor breakthrough, follow-up ‘Boxer’ saw The National cementing their status as emotionally-wrapped-up giants. Berninger’s turn of phrase is as delicate as it gets, taking a detour from life’s ups and downs to spend one cottoned-up moment with the one he loves most. “Turn the light out, say goodnight / No thinking for a little while,” he sings, over now-iconic piano parts.
Best lyric: “Tiptoe through our shiny city / With our diamond slippers on / Do our gay ballet on ice, bluebirds on our shoulders / We’re half awake in a fake empire.”
1. ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’
It’s no overstatement to say ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ changed everything for The National. For the first time, they managed to express their culturally-adored oddities in the form of an all-out, stadium-worthy anthem. From then on, they become big-name festival fixtures, and the rest is history.
Best lyric: “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe / I never thought about love when I thought about home.”