The Over/Under: The National

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Admitting that last week’s Britpop-themed Over/Under got a little out of hand is the first step in realizing that puppeteering broad-based cultural phenomena via listmaking is something best left to professionals like Entertainment Weekly and Amazon.com customer reviews. By contrast, an Over/Under list for the National is so far inside MAGNET’s batcave that we probably should’ve published this thing as a group email. Can the National—an outfit with no discernible public profile or palpable commercial success (i.e., “hits”)—really have overrated songs? Let’s call this what it really is: a list of five favorites and five non-favorites from a band we’ve obsessed over since 2003’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, the first of many hints that Matt Berninger and his band of brothers (the Dessners and the Devendorfs) could be the most important band since the Longpigs. (That one was for you, Britpop fans!)

Coming next week: The most overrated and underrated Sexiest Men Alive.

The Five Most Overrated National Songs
1. “Murder Me Rachael” (2003)

Overrated because a live version somehow found its way onto 2004’s Cherry Tree EP. Nobody releases live versions of unpopular songs, right? “Murder Me Rachael” is one of many tracks that prove the National is at its most uninteresting when attempting raw power. Maybe it’s because Berninger doesn’t have a good scream, or maybe it’s because guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner have such great success with more delicate guitar hooks and sounds. The shrill final minute of “Murder Me Rachael”—a “maelstrom” of feedback and crashing drums—is typical of lazy indie-rock bands who imagine they’ll whip the crowd into a loud, set-ending frenzy. Instead, arms everywhere remain folded.

2. “Looking For Astronauts” (2005)
Berninger could’ve salvaged this song simply by not repeating the lyric “We’re out looking for astronauts.” It weighs like an anchor on an otherwise nimble performance from the band, and while so many of Berninger’s wild-pitch lyrics somehow find the strike zone (“Ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand,” for example), this isn’t one of them. Good luck, Mr. Gorsky!

3. “Mr. November” (2005)
One of the many joys on the masterful Alligator was that the album nested two resonant anthems in its back half: “Abel,” a where-is-my-mind song seemingly written from the perspective of Christopher Walken’s character in Annie Hall, and “Mr. November.” Obviously, the latter has been judged the lesser of the two, for absurd reason. It’s preferable to sing along to “My mind’s not right” (from “Abel”) than the “Mr. November” chorus “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November.” Plus, I’ve never felt comfortable with the “I’m the new blue blood/I’m the great white hope” lyric and its subsequent branding by the band as an Obama campaign song.

4. “Mistaken For Strangers” (2007)
Oh, Boxer. So hard to love you when the numbnuts at Paste make you the poster child for adult-alternative mediocrity. Boxer single “Mistaken For Strangers” suffers from the same reverse-psychology effect as “Murder Me Rachael” in that the harder the National tries to write a rock-radio single, the less effective it seems to be. Go into your iTunes and re-title this track “The Song That Comes Before ‘Brainy.'”

5. “Green Gloves” (2007)
“Green Gloves” could’ve been the National’s “New Slang”: a gorgeous, acoustic-guitar descending melody paired with a slow-dance rhythm. All Berninger had to do was write some nondescript, pretty-sounding lyrics that teenagers could cut-and-paste into their Fuckbook profiles. Instead, the words suggest some sort of sexual voyeurism: “Get inside their clothes/With my green gloves … Watch their videos, in their chairs … Get inside their beds.” On second thought, the seediness is totally appreciated. But “Green Gloves” is still a tad snoozy over nearly four minutes. Cut the song in half and make the bed before you leave.

The Five Most Underrated National Songs
1. “The Geese Of Beverly Road” (2005)

Tucked in between the aforementioned Alligator rockers “Mr. November” and “Abel” is this little daydream of a song, a surreal moment of peace in an album otherwise besotted by psychological shortcomings, guilt, sex, fear and self-loathing. “The Geese Of Beverly Road” moves slowly but eventually takes over as Alligator‘s defining track: the most perfect synthesis of the National’s bubbling guitars, dry-baritone beauty (“Come be my waitress tonight,” sings Berninger, “Serve me the sky with a big slice of lemon”) and producer Peter Katis’ patented ’80s-reverbed drum sound (see also: Interpol). There’s a lot going on in the song, but resist the temptation to overthink things like the reference to a Cynthia Ozick novel; it’s bigger than that.

2. “The Thrilling Of Claire” (2005)
It speaks volumes about the National’s deep well of material circa Alligator that this song was left off the LP. “The Thrilling Of Claire”—the best thing the band has ever done—later appeared as a bonus track on the album’s limited-edition re-release. Poor Claire: stuck in a song about S&M and relegated to second-class citizen status. What might be heard as the song’s supposed shortcomings (Berninger sounds strained and out-of-breath at times, the slow buildup to the first chorus) actually make it more endearing and rewarding when the guitar solo finally swoops in to carry Claire away from all that bondage.

3. “Wasp Nest” (2004)
The live version of “Murder Me Rachael” notwithstanding, the Cherry Tree EP is the National at its most plush and elegant, a brief dip into Tindersticks territory between rock albums. “Wasp Nest” is the perfect cocktail for the EP, an easily sipped opener with sleigh bells and Berninger’s near-spoken vocals. The effortless vibe here fits the band like a red silk smoking jacket.

4. “You’ve Done It Again, Virginia” (2008)
Something from The Virginia EP—a happy misnomer at 12 tracks long—had to make the underrated list, and this namesake song is a solid choice. From its broken-down brass opening to its litany of alcohol-induced crimes against ambition, “You’ve Done It Again, Virginia” is depressing, morbid, mocking and cruel. National fans line up for that stuff. Great line: “Burn yourself alive and join the monster squad.”

5. “90-Mile Water Wall” (2003)
Just in case the casual fans are wondering exactly how deep they need to wade into the National’s back catalog, the answer is Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, the group’s second album. “90-Mile Water Wall” is the best reason to pick it up (“It Never Happened” is a close second), and it’s unlike anything you’ll find on Alligator or Boxer. It’s built on a simple acoustic-guitar strum and finds Berninger occasionally harmonizing with a female vocalist, an extremely successful experiment that wouldn’t be repeated until this year’s duet with St. Vincent’s Annie Clark on a cover of Crooked Fingers’ “Sleep All Summer.” A gorgeously mournful violin part played by Padma Newsome threatens to turn “90-Mile Water Wall” into a Dirty Three song, which is just fine by us. A high level of musicianship is often what allows the National to blow other bands off your stereo; it’s not very sexy to read (or write) about, but considering how many times Berninger’s lyrics are quoted here, we’d have to say instrumental prowess and compositional skill are the most underrated things this band’s got going.

—Matthew Fritch

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