The Alternative National Health Service
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Sparkling New Material from the Ohio Band - and Why They Hold a Special Place in My Heart
I do not usually get excited about bands...
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and what they are releasing at the moment. I am trying to scan around and ask myself which groups I am looking forward to hearing from this year. My mind goes blank but I am sure there are some – even if it is hard to recall. Most of the best and most exciting albums at the moment are from solo artists and it is rare when a band rocks up and I have that excitement. It is just the changing times and the fact solo artists have overtaken groups in terms of popularity and quality. I think, more accurately, it is the music bands play and the fact many are looking for something different. It is hard to thrill like Rock and Pop bands of the past used to. Have we grown tired of the same riffs and stadium-sized choruses? Have we got a little bored of the Electro bands that produce pretty samey music? I do think there is a bit of a problem with mainstream bands and it makes me excited seeing more potent and varied examples in the underground. My point is that, at the moment, the solo artists are making my head turn. I think there is one band that will always be an exception to the rule. The National are back – not that they ever went away – and they have released a fresh song in the form of You Had Your Soul with You. It is a gorgeous and hypnotic track with some tense beats, strings and gorgeous vocals.
It is a masterful and typically reliable song from the band and one that will open their new album – more on that in a bit. Past material from The National has been a bit pessimistic and emotionally raw but that is not all that they are about. Matt Berninger, their lead, is someone who can pen these incredibly intelligent lyrics and structure these fantastic images that portray all manner of subjects. On You Had Your Soul with You, as SPIN state, the band has added new elements to their sound:
“But on “You Had Your Soul With You,” the opening track from I Am Easy to Find, Berninger also experiments with empathy and optimism. He’s found a perfect complement in noted singer and session musician Gail Ann Dorsey, whose honeyed vocals offer another side to Berninger’s story. Around the two-minute mark, the clouds start to open up; as dizzying guitar runs give way to solo piano and a lofty string arrangement, Dorsey sings, “I have owed it to my heart every word I’ve said / You have no idea how hard I died when you left.” It’s a perfect counter to Berninger’s typically inward-facing lyrics, and an anchor for one of the band’s prettiest codas. Dorsey even manages to temper the track’s brutal refrain: “I had only one thing left / And I couldn’t see it yet.” The National have long traced their own anxiety and emotional volatility through manic highs and desperate lows. But by inviting another voice into the fold, they open themselves up to something new—understanding”.
There is, as I said, an album coming and it has taken many by surprise. Their previous record, Sleep Well Beast, only came out in 2017 so one would forgive them for taking some more time to craft an album. That is never the case with The National. They are fast to turn material around and, unlike most bands, their consistency is exceptional. Consequence of Sound have details regarding their May-due record:
“The National have announced the release of a new album called I Am Easy to Find, due out on May 17th via 4AD. Additionally, the New York alt-rock mainstays have teamed up with director Mike Mills (20th Century Women) for a 24-minute short film of the same name, starring Alicia Vikander.
The 16-track album was recorded primarily at Long Pond in Hudson Valley, New York, with additional sessions taking place in Paris, Berlin, Dublin, Cincinnati, Austin, Brooklyn, and elsewhere. The album features vocal contributions from Sharon Van Etten, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Lisa Hannigan, Mina Tindle, and Bowie collaborator Gail Anne Dorsey, among others.
According to a press release, The National’s album and Mills’ film inspired the other, but “don’t necessarily need one another.” Mills describes the releases as “playfully hostile siblings that love to steal from each other”.
I look back through the career of The National and cannot see an album they one can call average or bad. Maybe their 2001 debut, The National, got a few mixed reviews but they have excelled since then and produced brilliant work after brilliant work. I think solo artists, maybe, are steaming ahead of bands because they write songs that are more personal and can tap into our deep emotions and feelings.
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I am not saying bands cannot do that but most tend to concentrate on other aspects or fail to deliver with as much power and emotion as solo artists. With Matt Berninger at the helm, there is this captivating singer who is able to make every word sound spellbinding and unique. I think, in many ways, The National are a tonic and comfort in hard times. A lot of their lyrics might paint slightly dark and moody images but there is an arresting beauty that makes all their songs sound hopeful and spirited. It is hard to describe but The National can be deep and revealing but they always ensure there is that emotional balance. I love every album they put out as it has The National’s core sound but there is new skin. The reason I have focused on The National for special consideration is the special place they have in my heart. I shall not name the woman, lest she be reading by a long-shot, but I discovered the band just after High Violet was released in 2010. This friend, she was/is a big fan of them and ran her own blog. We used to swap emails and she, on social media, would profess her love of The National and their music. I was not aware of them at that point so listened to High Violet and had my mind opened.
Not only is it one of the best albums of this decade but the songs are so effortlessly brilliant. Listen to the drawl-and-rush of Bloodbuzz Ohio and the images it projects – our lead owing money (to the money he owes) and being carried by a swarm of bees! Terrible Love and Anyone’s Ghost are incredibly rich and evocative whereas England is one of those songs that rarely got mentioned in reviews around the time yet is one of the standouts. They would create – and had to that point – better-reviewed albums but High Violet is very personal to me. I connected with this music lover and human who turned me onto The National and related what they meant to her. At that point, my band music was still very much Rock and Alternative but The National broadened my palette and introduced me to this fresh world of sound and emotion. I use words like ‘emotion’ but it is a good thing: the songs resonate with people and we can all relate to what is being said and find something beautiful. Before moving on, AV Music reviewed High Violet and stated why it is a wonderful thing:
“Less outwardly aggressive than even the relatively restrained Boxer, and yet big and grand enough to fill the large theaters The National finally occupy after spending a decade slowly building an audience, High Violet is carefully considered without being labored, richly detailed without being fussy. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Anyone’s Ghost” satisfy the band’s quota of driving, brooding pop songs, but the breathtaking “England” rises to an unprecedented climax that puts the band squarely in Arcade Fire territory. “Afraid Of Everyone” is another landmark for The National, with Berninger taking on a potentially trite subject—being a new father—and making listeners feel the sledgehammer pounding of a scared (but committed) man’s heart. With High Violet, The National has graduated from being a critic’s band. Now it belongs to everyone”.
Every album from The National is crammed with life and these vivid stories. Boxer has the wondrous Fake Empire – and is one of their most popular albums – and that 2007 album was the one I investigated after discovering High Violet. Trouble Will Find Me arrived in 2013 and, at a hard point in life, provided guidance and strength. I guess the mark of every great artist/album is the ability to lift the mood or put the listener in a better frame. Whether The National are singing about swarming bees or letting the heart bleed, it provides me (and countless others) with this warm and comforting feeling. It is weird but I listen to The National and they compel me to look inside myself and provide wisdom; I can close my eyes and get lost in their music and, when I need a boost, they are on hand. All of their albums hold some sort of significance and the latest revelation, I Am Easy to Find, sounds like it will be a masterpiece. Whereas other bands experience dips and they fade away, The National seem to keep building and finding new ground. I love the Matt Berninger, Aaron Dessner; Bryce Dessner, Scott and Bryan Devendorf think and play. Their music has helped so many people and provides this gorgeous and utterly captivating soundtrack. At their most energised and playful they can provide smile but I love their most heartaching songs and they tend to strike me harder. Their back catalogue is amazing and crammed with brilliance and I so glad they are back. There is a bittersweet realisation when I hear news of a new album from The National. The fact the woman who introduced them to me is not in my life anymore is sad but, when I hear their music, I am cast back to that time around 2010/2011. I am always curious how long The National can keep creating these brilliant albums without losing a step and producing something inferior. By the sound of their latest single, You Had Your Soul with You, that is not going to happen...
IN THIS PHOTO: The National/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images