The Over/Under: The National


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 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

24 replies on “The Over/Under: The National”

Glad to see “Wasp Nest” on the underrated list. I had fallen in love with this song before Boxer came out and had a really hard time understanding what everyone thought was so great about it, because “Wasp Nest” was sooooooo much better.

In addition to be a great song, what makes Geese of Beverly Road so magnificent is its placement right next to Abel. What a perfectly complementary combination of songs.

All around, some nice choices.

Agree with the thrilling of claire. It would be great if they played it live. I’d maybe add city middle and available to the underrated list but hey that’s just me.

The Thrilling Of Claire reminds me of what’s missing when I see The Nat’l live. Berninger doesn’t really have another gear or any ability to project in a higher register and each time I’ve seen them live the band simply overpowers him. He’s thin on this chorus, which is too bad as it’s dying for him to belt it out. In his normal register he’s fighting the bass and the guitars absolutely devour him when he moves up the scale. Like Joe Pernice with full-band backing it makes for exceptional albums and disappointing shows.

I’m glad we’re all finally coming to terms with the fact that “Boxer’s” popularity was a polite way of most media outlets saying they wrongfully neglected “Alligator”

I’m going to the Fulton fish market and get the biggest salmon that I can find so I can whack the reviewer along-side his stupid head! Christ! Most of the song songs on the Over list are some of my very favorite ones by them…Astronauts, November, Rachael! I mean, what the f*** kind of twee s*** are you into to reject those? The under list, I’ve never liked Wasp Nest and Goose is ok. Lot of mopey tunes here. 90 Mile is one of my favorites. Well, Matthew being a big Mendoza Line fan, I’ll keep the fish and bar-b-que it this weekend.

Huge National fan here, I got a kick out of this. Pretty funny, acutally. Good observations, to boot. I agree with this, although “thirsty”, “cardinal song” ,”city middle” and “val jester” are deserving candidates for the “under” list. Could live without “wasp nest” , and “you’ve done it again, V” is a little simple apart from the lyrics.

Hey, who civilized the comments section?

Nice observation by E-Dub. I’ve never had the chance to see them perform “The Thrilling Of Claire,” but I feel pretty much the same way about Berninger (and Pernice, for that matter) live.

Brilliant pick on “Geese,” but “Mr.November” is too brilliant to ever be overrated. Still gives me goosebumps.

What fun the over under is, my most favorite bands!

Good job getting eveyone all bothered last week, Emily.

Will the boys from Ween be on next weeks “Sexiest men ” list?

I think “Beautiful Head” (off their first album) is one of their best songs. So catchy and bouncy but the lyrics are about a gal that grew out of him.

Mistaken For Strangers is IMMENSE. It was the song that made me fall for the band. That line “Another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults”. Stunning.

I never really knew “Green Gloves” was such a highly touted song to even be considered overrated. I think many people would agree that “About Today” is underrated. i think “Tall Saint” is one all should hear as well as “Available”. Both fly under the radar.

‘Geese’ is a great song, fully deserves to on the underrated list. Also on there, in my humblest of opinions, should be ‘Santa Clara’. I shall have to investigate ‘The Thrilling of Claire’ as I’ve never heard it…and to think I call myself a fan, how shameful!

I loved this list, couldn’t agree more with a lot of them. I started to take exception to “Mistaken for Strangers,” as, like Kelly, it was the first song by them I absolutely loved, but you’re right, it’s not a good showing of what makes The National The National. Same story with Mr. November. In my opinion, it’s the unassuming songs that creep up on you a couple months after the first listen that make them so moving. To me, “The Geese of Beverly Road” is a perfect example of this. You can miss it the first couple of passes through the album, but eventually its delicate power will have you hooked. Though I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t be in awe of “90-Mile Water Well” halfway through the first listen. Again, I thought the list was dead-on, but I was a little sad to see a lack of love for the first album; I don’t think I can ever listen to “Theory of the Crows” enough.

Also, I have to agree with the earlier comments: “About Today” definitely should be mentioned, all with the other songs unique to the Cherry Tree EP.

Honestly, I don’t understand how Mr. November can be underrated. That being said, I couldn’t agree more on the underrated section, five of their best songs. Slipping Husband and All Dolled Up in Straps are big ones for me too.

Matt, civilization was bound to come. Either that or it’s an insight into National fans?

Good call on Ween for the over/under treatment. That should return the comments section to the mire.

Boys? I trust that doesn’t include me. I have nothing against Ween, obviously. I do wonder if, when used with the lowercase spelling, if the implications of ween fansite aren’t something entirely different than intended. There are a lot of weens here imo.

Sorry, chaps, but this author is off his rocker.

– “Green Gloves”: Perhaps the most sneakily disturbingly erotic ode to voyeurism since Massive Attack’s “Inertia Creeps”
– “Mr. November”: Simply a balls-out rocker.
– “Mistaken for Strangers”: Err..someone hasn’t been listening to the words.

I have no clue how these could be ‘overrated’ by any measures; certainly not in a world flooded with Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.

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