Words fae Callum Thornhill (@Cal_Thornhill)
With a career spanning almost two decades, Cincinnati rockers The National have continuously reimagined their sound across seven spellbinding records. The release of Sleep Well Beast (2017) encapsulated their diverse themes to create a deep, dark blend of expertly crafted misery-laden ballads. This year we have witnessed Berninger and co. deservedly top the bill of several European festivals – an accolade that was arguably rightfully theirs after the release of 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. Revisiting the best of the best is a pleasurable task, but one that will never find a definitive answer.
10) AVAILABLE (Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers)
The only pre-Alligator track to make the list, which demonstrates just how elegantly The National matured. Available, though presented the cornerstone of Berninger’s grizzly, almost vicious, bellows of passion and conviction we see in later records. “Why did you dress me down?” is screamed as the track closes, via the protagonist questioning loneliness, blame, and love.
9) FAKE EMPIRE (Boxer)
Kicking off what Berninger calls “a sad record,” Fake Empire offers the listener a moment of tranquility to blissfully reminisce about the pre-soured stages of life. The reminiscent element comes in the form of an almost dreamscape, fairytale sequence: tip-toeing through the city with diamond slippers on, bluebirds on shoulders and the piece de resistance of the tranquil ideology is turning the light out and not thinking temporarily. Stunning.
8) I’LL STILL DESTROY YOU (Sleep Well Beast)
“This one’s like your mother’s arms, when she was young and sunburned in the ’80s,” is a lyric simple, yet one of the most memorable from 2017’s Sleep Well Beast. As always with The National, moments of reflection and realisation are entwined amongst similes, in I’ll Still Destroy You we have “always up at 5am like a baby.” Similarly to the first lyric, the simplicity packs enough of a punch to make an impact.
7) CONVERSATION 16 (High Violet)
“Cause I’m evil,” echoes throughout the choruses of this High Violet ballad, and The National certainly document exactly why. Miserable things told after the protagonist’s partner is sleeping, afraid of eating their brains, being a confident liar, etc. are all relevant in the demise of what, on the surface, was once a watertight relationship. Whether it be a one sided breakdown or the agreement of both parties, the brutal honesty comes across as almost cinematic.
6) MR NOVEMBER (Alligator)
If you were to pull a live set apart, many critics would place Mr November as the number one live track. Often found towards the bottom of the setlist it misleads the audience into thinking the band are about to inject 12 ounces of passion into the performance, but it seamlessly fits into mellifluous anthems either side. Roaring “I won’t fuck us over,” The National provide ample proof through Mr November that they have the ability to transform from a sophisticated dinner party band to the bladdered taxi ride home ramblings.
5) DON’T SWALLOW THE CAP (Trouble Will Find Me)
Smothered in ghostly, distant vocals and outlining that their are only two emotions The National familiarise themselves with; “careful fear and dead devotion,” offer an insight into how easy it is to change your approach to someone. Possibly on the back of a messy break up, the protagonist outlines methods of how to hurt them, e.g. play Nevermind or Let it Be if you want to see them cry, and with the addition of hooks such as “I’m not alone, I’ll never be,” suggests an ignorance that by highlighting how to hurt them back they’ll never leave. Verdict: teetering on toxic, will probably end up like Sid and Nancy.
4) ALL THE WINE (Alligator)
A rare self-appreciation from The National here; no doubt via a few bottles of house red in a trendy bar. A wine induced confidence is something we can all relate to – the line “I’m a perfect piece of ass” is particularly brilliant and reminds me of the age-old joke about walking past a mirror when you’re steaming and thinking *Owen Wilson voice* wooooow. While All the Wine is somewhat self-indulgent, the ideology of a motorcade having to go around one person would be superb viewing. Egomaniac? Maybe. Lyrical brilliance? Absolutely.
3) WALK IT BACK (Sleep Well Beast)
The snippet from ‘Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush’ (Ron Suskind) is what makes Walk It Back a top three The National track. That, and of course the self-deprecation vibe running deep from the opening line to the last. Mellow and atmospheric, we have all the hallmarks of The National. Misery wrapped in a blanket of delicate synths and deep exploration, classic Berninger.
2) SORROW (High Violet)
The juxtaposed approaches to sadness, or Sorrow if you will, provide an exploration into the mind of The National with yet another self-loathing, downbeat ballad. The lyric “Sorrow’s a girl inside my cake,” is particularly interesting – often a girl popping out of a cake has the connotation of being a jubilant occasion, however, in typical The National style the ideology has been flipped and instead we are to perceive Sorrow coming at the most unexpected and celebratory of times.
1) GRACELESS (Trouble Will Find Me)
Trouble Will Find Me, as mentioned in the intro should have been the record that gave The National a leg-up to parade their melancholy tunes around a stage as the festival headliners. Instead, tracks such as Graceless was kept under wraps and owned exclusively by fans. Here we see the body being compared to fruit and the protagonist is no longer their rosy self, but instead a rotten, decaying version of themselves. An ever-growing ballad with lyrics suitable for tattooing and ideology suited for feature length visuals makes Graceless the number on track by The National.
Notable mentions go to England, Mistaken For Strangers, Terrible Love and Lemonworld; perhaps one day the definitive list of all-time The National tracks will be created, but until then we can debate the best of the best.