Comparisons to old-school brooders such as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Nick Drake don't really cut it next to the National's decidedly modern and dismally magnificent sound: these songs of self-loathing outlaws are more in line with Johnny Cash covering Trent Reznor's "Hurt," drawn from decades of heartache and delivered by a front man—here, Brooklyn-based Matt Berninger—weathered beyond his years. The femme fatales on The Cherry Tree wear cocktail dresses and pearl chokers, hold black-gloved fingers to their lips, sip martinis out of paper cups, and are too delectably dangerous to avoid. On "Wasp's Nest," Berninger sings, "Your eyes are broken bottles, and I'm afraid to ask/And all your wrath and cutting beauty, you're poison in a pretty glass." Despite the dire mood, he's jingling bells behind his voice as bright acoustic guitars make way for a wave of synths. Cherry Tree is poppier than the National's earlier works, taking fewer hints from Americana influences such as the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo. Instead, their eerie and expansive instrumentation is far from folky: a raspy bongo makes "About Today" sound like beat poetry, and on "A Reasonable Man," a chorus of sad cowboy tenors croons along with Berninger's cigarette-stained baritone as a somber violin tugs at the heartstrings. The new record also includes a live version of "Murder Me Rachael," originally on their 2003 release, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, that more ably captures Berninger's seething screams—the voltage behind the National's stage show. The enthusiastic applause that follows the track seems like an odd response to the rawness of his rage. But then again, this kind of boozy anguish has always made certain people stand up and cheer.
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