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The constituencies for gloomy, well-crafted art rock are pretty well-defined by now. There are the Goth lifers, the flanneled blog readers and the emo teens. But Brooklyn, New York, quartet the National, five albums into their career, are carving out a new audience: the bothered fathers. “If you do a close reading, or maybe even a not-so-close reading, we could be pegged as dad rock,” says drummer Bryan Devendorf. “Or as white-collar mope rock.”
Ask Devendorf who fans of the National are, and he’ll mention an encounter he had while sitting with two band mates at a bar in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. A man came up and offered to buy them a round of beers. He was not a Goth lifer. He was not a blog reader. He was not an emo teen. He was, as Devendorf puts it, a “businessman, wearing a suit, very clean-cut, probably in his mid-or late-40s” who, along with his daughter, likes the National.
It takes a listen to their lyrics to understand why the National’s string-laden sonic dioramas might attract tie-wearing career dads. On the band’s latest full-length, High Violet, singer Matt Berninger delivers the baritone musings of a man turned into a near-psycho by fatherhood and early midle age. Berninger’s narrator is gripped with fantasies of unplugging from responsibility, suspicious of what the world might do to his child, and hypnotized by the steadily growing sadness he senses in his friends, his wife and himself. “You’ll never believe the shitty thoughts I think,” Berninger mumbles on “Conversation 16,” effectively laying out the album’s thesis. Tough stuff, sure, but that didn’t keep the album from premiering at No. 3 on the Billboard 200.
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Berninger is the only member of the band with a kid—a new one at that—but the entire group are well-qualified to deliver music about the anxieties of not-quite-young-adult commuters. As recently as 2007, two years after the release of the critically lauded Alligator and months before the release of the even-more-critically lauded Boxer, Devendorf was working as a freelancer in the office of a New York City advertising firm. The rest of the band had been paying their dues in the starched-shirt creative professional class. This came through on Boxer, which saw Berninger taking aim at the numbing nature of the climb up the corporate ladder. The characters on that album were sympathy-starved, warily eying one another but occasionally embracing in giddy, drunken communion.
“Certain songs do resonate,” Devendorf says of his own relationships to the National’s lyrics as a post-professional thirtysomething. “Sometimes it has nothing at all to do with my age or whatever demographic I’m in. It’s mostly the kind of emotion that Matt’s able to articulate in an interesting or unexpected way.”
The music is not, as it might seem, the product of five killjoys jamming. Berninger, in a recent video interview from backstage at Ireland’s Electric Picnic, says he has been “happy for a pretty long time.” Devendorf faithfully calls his wife to exchange vows before every concert. The band contain two sets of brothers—including one pair of twins—and while their fussiness in the studio is legendary, Devendorf seems hard-pressed to recall any bona-fide Behind the Music-stylefights. By all accounts, the National are made up of well-adjusted dudes, which explains why they’re so adept at writing songs about the psychic costs of adjusting.
In concert, the National’s reasonableness translates into a kind of generosity toward the crowd. Songs that brood restrainedly on albums boil over onstage, producing thrashing, thundering and un-dry eyes. Devendorf almost seems embarrassed by the band’s ability to summon ecstatic, theater-captivating sing-alongs at will. “We do tend to repeat ourselves too much with these sort of long, song-length crescendos,” he says. “But it’s a habit we got into after having been described as ‘boring.’ So we try to emulate maybe an Arcade Fire model, in which there’s a slow build that climaxes in an unexpected turn at the end.”
All gazes, usually, are on Berninger. The sandy-blond front man is gaunt, tall and square-jawed. Often, by concert’s finish, he’ll have downed an entire bottle of wine. He’s magnetic—and not just to the audience. “In performance, Matt’s the boss,” Devendorf says. “He’s keeping time, basically. I’m technically the time-keeper, but on certain songs, it’s nice to relax and play the same thing over and over and listen to Matt. But it’s weird: Sometimes you get caught up listening, and you kind of forget you’re playing.”
In the studio, though, Devendorf says the band’s workings are more democratic. Recording High Violet in the converted garage of guitarist Aaron Dessner’s Brooklyn home, they civilly debated lyrics and drum sounds and song structures for months. They had plenty to disagree over, but it all worked out. After all, they are grown-ups. “When our back’s against the wall,” Devendorf says, “the five of us pretty much stick together.”
This article appeared in print as "The National’s Anthems: The band’s sound could be called music for bothered dads, but it’s still pretty cool."