It's tough when you're eagerly awaiting a new album from a cherished band. Since seeing The National perform on Jools Holland I have been a huge fan, their albums Alligator and Boxer never getting the chance to move far from the CD player, and their performance at the Latitude Festival (where they will appear again this summer) a reminder why you should always make an effort to see live music. Another of the reasons why they're cherished is because they have always been the kind of band to attract a devoted following without threatening to break into the mainstream, the kind of band you could make a gift of to a musically discerning friend, one of those 'best-kept secrets' that it is your privilege to let slip occasionally. Some have been talking about this being the album to help them break through that barrier and see some more popular success. I'm not sure about that, this album still has the dark preoccupations of its predecessors, even with the effort to write more pop melodies, and the few nods towards a larger sound (for those larger venues) end up sounding a little hollow in places. The devil is in the detail and the joy of The National has always been the layers of detail in both the playing, from two sets of brothers, and Matt Berninger's distinctive baritone that reveal themselves with each successive listen. Their recent appearance at The Royal Albert Hall saw some of that detail lost apparently in that cavernous space and there seemed to be something of that on the album too when listening to the stream that was made available before its official release, with some fuzzy production preventing some tracks from really making their full impact. But a listen to the album proper makes things much clearer on the whole; this is an album that will satisfy the fan immediately, growing stronger with each listen, and might just have enough in there to entice some new devotees.
The fuzz is noticeable immediately on opener Terrible Love, the first track showcased by the band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, although perhaps a bit of murk is well suited to this tale of descent and 'walking with spiders'. Sorrow is a good example of a track that could be depressing but is lifted by angelic choral backing to lyrics of poetic simplicity, 'Cover me in rag and bone sympathy/'Cause I don't wanna get over you'. Anyone's Ghost is driven by the drumming of Bryan Devendorf but has so far failed to really grab me. Then comes Little Faith, as if to remind you that it was just that that was required. The distorted opening gives way to gentle piano, strings and brass. This is an altogether more epic sound. Devendorf's drumming is amazing again, he really does deserve huge praise for his contribution on this album. There's something cinematic about the track, something grand like the theatrics of Pulp, entirely appropriate for this song about playing dangerous games 'All our lonely kicks are getting harder to find/We'll play nuns versus priests until somebody cries'. Afraid Of Everyone haunts with its wailing backing vocals (from Sufjan Stevens) and refrain of 'You're the voices swallowing my soul, soul, soul'. Things really begin to look up on Bloodbuzz Ohio, a standout track filled with the positivity that comes with a return to one's home, the energetic drumming and horns driving it forwards, one destined for the festivals I think. The atmosphere sours slightly on Lemonworld, about a returning soldier before Runaway provides a very close up performance from Berninger simply accompanied by acoustic guitar and horn section. If you want to hear how a voice can be subtly shaded with emotion then this is one to listen to. Then than have what I think are the album's two strongest tracks. The glorious Conversation 16 begins 'I think the kids are in trouble' before managing to make a singalong chorus of 'I was afraid I'd eat your brains/ 'Cause I'm evil.' Brilliant drumming, those angelic backing vocals and the perfect building structure all combine to create something close to the 'pop song' Michael Stipe dared them to write (reminding me ever so slightly of The Killers - in a good way). Then we have England which feels like a gift to us fans in Blighty. A truly beautiful song that builds perfectly its layers of drums, piano, guitar, brass, strings and vocal to the kind of crescendo that makes it worth downloading immediately. It would make a perfect album closer but that responsibility falls to Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, a lushly orchestrated paean to love.
The National are an important band who deserve to be huge and if this album doesn't do it for them then I won't be too upset (it means I get to keep some exclusivity for a while yet). But rest assured that one day they will be, perhaps showing the same kind of patience and consistency that saw Elbow rewarded with the Mercury Music Prize. But prizes and recognition don't seem to be what they're in it for. This tight-knit group will fight for hours over their music to make tracks that they 'all feel are compelling'. That kind of attention to detail is well worth a listen.