The National

Mr NovemberAlligator
Fake EmpireBoxer
Mistaken For StrangersBoxer
Racing Like A ProBoxer
Bloodbuzz OhioHigh Violet
Vanderlyle Crybaby GeeksHigh Violet
Conversation 16High Violet
I Need My GirlTrouble Will Find Me
Don't Swallow The CapTrouble Will Find Me




Contributor: Rick J Leach

If you are in any way interested in music – and I suppose you are if you are reading this – then it’s funny sometimes how certain artists creep up on you. They may have lain undiscovered and ignored for a long time until some random event takes place and you suddenly realise what you’ve been missing.

For me, sometimes I’ve ignored artists and thought mistakenly that they were crap – believed too much what’s been written about them in the music press; Coldplay are a prime example of this. Other times I have gone in completely the opposite direction. I’ve seen artists praised to the hilt and therefore been inherently suspicious of them. If someone wins album of the year awards that I’ve never really heard of then that’s a big warning sign to avoid them like the plague. It all seems a bit daft; these instincts are based on nothing much more than misplaced readings of what’s good and what’s not.

On the other hand, there’s much too much music available now and I have to have some sort of filtering mechanism, however imperfect it may be. As in life though, the same in music, and things are not always that clear cut and straightforward. Sometimes artists just pass me by. There is no rhyme or reason to this. It just seems to be that they don’t especially cross my radar and that when I do get round to hearing them they’re usually four or five albums in, and are gaining more and more attention.

They’re starting to play bigger venues – stadiums and festivals and the like. There’ll be TV appearances. I’ll warrant that they will have played small clubs in my home town in the past, and I’ll have totally missed out on them, much to my eternal regret. There’ll always be a few artists who’ll slip through the net. I suppose that the good side of this is that when I do finally get around to, well, not exactly having my finger on the cultural pulse, but at least locating some sign of life, then there may be hours and hours of music to hear. All this is an extended excuse for explaining why it took me so very long to hear any of The National and come to the understanding that they are a very special band.

It was really all triggered by going to the Glastonbury Festival in 2010. After finding out some of the artists that would be playing and whom I hadn’t heard before, I thought I really should try to hear at least a bit of their music before I went. I didn’t want to spend hours standing in muddy fields listening to bands that I didn’t have a clue about. (In the case of Muse though I’d have rather spent hours head first in a muddy field than listen to them). Anyway, it was very hot and sunny with no mud in 2010, so that question didn’t really come into play.

I’d got hold of the latest albums of some of the bands, figuring out that probably would be fairly representative of what they’d be playing. And this included The National’s most recent release at that time, High Violet. I only half-listened to it before we went to Glastonbury, and then only a couple of times. It was kind of lost within the general rush before we went. To this day, I just cannot understand why. I can only think that the reason is so mundane that it’s quite embarrassing to mention it. It’s their name. The National. It doesn’t really tell you much, does it? Makes them sound a bit like some awful soft-rock band from the 80s. They are so far from that, however.

The National is an American indie rock band formed in Ohio and currently based in Brooklyn, with vocalist Matt Berninger and two sets of brothers, Scott (bass) and Bryan Devendorf (drums), and Aaron (guitar) and Bryce Dessner (guitar).

Of all the bands and artists that I’ve ever seen live, watching The National at Glastonbury is probably the one of the most revelatory musical experience of my life. I don’t think that it was just because we were there in perfect weather on a beautiful summer afternoon. There was more to it than that. There’s something fiercely intelligent, life-affirming and tightly focussed about The National – not just on that Saturday in June, but deep within and throughout almost every record they have made. It’s just a shame I took so long to discover them.

So if you were starting with The National where would you begin?

I would say simply based on my own experience, try to see them live. Buy, beg, borrow, steal or do whatever you need to do to get a ticket. I can assure you that you will not be disappointed.

Alternatively, you could (and should really) get hold of their last four albums: Alligator, Boxer, High Violet and their most recent, Trouble Will Find Me. Although their first two albums, The National and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers are alright, they are nothing special. If you listened to them you’d wonder what all this fuss I’m making is about. They hit their stride in 2006 with Alligator and have got better and better since. In fact, Alligator is such a sea-change from their earlier work, that I’d half-suspect they’d made a pact at the crossroads, Robert Johnson-style.

What do they sound like? The sound of the complexity of living in the modern world, sadness, hope, despair, sheer joy, relationships, adulthood, helplessness, love; everything. The National are a ‘rock band’ but please don’t let that put you off. They are clearly ‘songwriters’ and very gifted musicians. Yet for me the strength of their music is the deep narrative within each song. Repeated listens reap dividends and that is why simply terming them a rock band is simplistic and false. The closest thing that I can compare them to is like having Raymond Carver’s short stories set to music.

I’ve tried to pick ten tracks in chronological order from Alligator through to Trouble Will Find Me but actually it’s fairly random, though representative of their work. Any ten tracks would suffice. Honestly.


The National official website

The National play Fake Empire at the Sydney Opera House forecourt

The National biography (Apple Music)

After seeing The National (and others!) at Glastonbury in 2010, Rick went again the following year but this time as a bar worker serving pints. Read all about it in his latest, recently published, book Left Again at the Womble: The Adventures of a Middle-aged Dad working at the Glastonbury Festival which is available in e-book and paperback.

TopperPost #281


  1. Neil Waite
    May 20, 2014

    Brilliant review Rick. Really well written with very interesting observations. Like you, this band has slipped through my ‘net’ too. So I’ve got some catching up to do here and your topperten is a great place to start.
    ‘I’ll warrant that they will have played small clubs in my home town in the past’…… don’t you just hate it when you find that out?

    • Rick Leach
      May 20, 2014

      Thanks for your comments Neil, very much appreciated. Glad you enjoyed the piece! I not only have missed bands that I later discovered I should have seen but also missed artists that I knew were playing but never went- in the case of Captain Beefheart simply becuase it was raining and I couldn’t be bothered getting a bus into town!

  2. Keith Shackleton
    May 20, 2014

    Great band and a great live experience. The set-closing a capella Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks over here in 2011 was one of the best things I’ve ever heard at a gig, and Matt Berninger’s mid-song visit to the bar at the back of the room to get some more white wine one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

    • Rick Leach
      May 20, 2014

      Such a great band! Have you seen their Sydney Opera House show from this year? Excellent version of Vanderlyle which closed the set was magnificent. There’s a link to the whole show above.

  3. David Lewis
    May 21, 2014

    They played the Opera House? Huh. I’m having the same experience you detail.

    (Believe it was the Opera House forecourt … Ed.)

  4. Robert Bacon
    May 22, 2014

    Rick – reading your excellent introductory comments and review re-awakened my own passion for this excellent band. Saw them for the first time last November at London’s Alexandra Palace. One of the best performances I’ve ever witnessed. I have a ticket for the Hyde Park concert July 12, so it’s good to know they can succeed in a non-intimate venue – and the gig includes Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Oh my Gawd! Hope you can get there.
    Have followed their progress from their early days. I agree with you, “Alligator” is a marginal favourite, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the many brilliant songs to be found throughout their catalogue. Can understand your comment about their first 2 albums, but maybe if you had heard them on their release you might have a different opinion. They were “special” albums to me at that time. If you haven’t acquired it, would recommend the EP “Cherry Tree” (2004).

  5. Jerry Tenenbaum
    May 22, 2014

    The National: Thanks for this well-written piece. There is a ton of superb music from wonderful musicians and songwriters available and to access or know about all this is nearly impossible. I came upon The National by word of mouth (mainly younger people) and by following on-line magazine reviews. I go to the end-of-year reviews and often just follow new album reviews in a few of the better publications (Pitchfork, Uncut, Mojo, etc) and find out what is getting high ratings. The National was consistent. I rarely get to live shows for these bands but try to see them when they come around. (Dandy Warhols a couple of years ago: Destroyer next week for example) I haven’t seen The National yet but this review will stay in my mind and if the opportunity arises, absolutely will go.

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