As we celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the National’s Alligator, it behooves us to discuss two persistent myths, both related to Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare. The first one is truer, and it goes like this: Back in 2005, a promising Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati rock band released its third album and scheduled a tour with some anonymous friends named Clap Your Hands Say Yeah as the opening act. Just before the tour hit the road, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self-titled debut album became an overnight sensation on the strength of rave reviews from the burgeoning blogosphere. This created an awkward situation wherein massive crowds would flood into America’s bars to watch CYHSY’s opening sets then clear out before the National took the stage (I can only imagine they sounded extra sad at those shows). The openers looked set for a long and fruitful career, whereas the headliners seemed destined to become a historical footnote. But in the eternal words of College GameDay host Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend! The hype around Clap Your Hands quickly dissipated (like the hare, see?), but the National kept slowly and surely building an audience while churning out one masterful record after another (like the tortoise, get it?). Now what remains of Clap Your Hands is touring tiny clubs playing their debut album in full, and the National are mid-sized festival headliners. Slow and steady (and impeccably dressed and desperately maudlin) wins the race!
That story has been told and retold so many times over the years — I myself did so here — and it’s possible to infuse it with enough sanctimony to power CYHSY’s current tour van, especially if you’re one of the people who recognized the National’s genius early on. But it bears repeating because what were we, as a collective populace, thinking? Here was this legendary band in the making, and the masses ignored them in favor of the flavor of the month. Many of us didn’t realize it at the time, but the National had just released the first in a string of unassailable records. Over the course of the next decade, they’d establish themselves as one of the defining rock bands of their generation, exquisite merchants of gloom wringing a particularly Midwestern brand of malaise out of increasingly metropolitan music. That started here, with their first truly great collection of songs.
The other prevailing myth about the National is that they keep making the same album over and over again. That one simply isn’t true, as you’ll learn if you spin Alligator and 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me back to back. The National did work their way into a signature sound on 2007’s Boxer, and there are traces of it on Alligator. But really this album is the last and best of a different breed of National record. They were so much rawer back then, experimenting with various strands of indie rock, chamber pop, and alt-country and landing on something brilliant more and more often. They’ve spent the ensuing albums finely tuning the aesthetic that you can begin to see forming here, learning how to conjure the same triumphantly morose feelings with subtlest of movements. On Alligator, they often do it with a humongous electrified chorus instead.
The best of those is “Mr. November,” the National’s first signature song and the Alligator track most likely to pop up in setlists these days. Although the band has been politically active throughout their career, “Mr. November” is a weird tune for them in retrospect; rarely does Matt Berninger apply his inimitable brooding baritone to a character other than his own on-record persona — the debonair, wine-drunk, middle-aged depressive in a rumpled suit — and never again have they basically turned up to 11 for an entire song. But damn is Berninger’s empty-political-promises shtick effective when bolstered by his bandmates’ infinite bombast. Even Boxer’s soaring “Mistaken For Strangers” can’t match its dynamism, that sense that Berninger’s righteous swirling disillusionment will crush anything in its path. Plus, “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November” is just a killer line.
But we’re starting at the end, here! Before “Mr. November” are two other notable overdriven powerhouses, the exultant “Lit Up” and the ferociously howling “Abel.” Those three songs together are our surest reminder that these guys were born and raised in Ohio, and they envision an alternate future in which the National embrace aggression rather than slouching ever deeper into melancholia. (Maybe someday they’ll return to that sound and make their Monster or their Isolation Drills?) Elsewhere we hear them trying on that elegance that would come to define them, never better than on shimmering opener “Secret Meeting.” All over the record there are templates they’d return to again and again — the arpeggiated swirl of “Looking For Astronauts”; the shimmering guitar textures of “All The Wine”; the gorgeously smooth glide of “Daughters Of The Soho Riots”; the orchestral swells of “The Geese Of Beverly Road” — but without fail, they’re more elemental here, delivered with flaws and youthful energy where poise and perfection would later reign.
So maybe the National really are the tortoise. They’ve inched their way forward on every record, gradually refining their craft, smoothing their rough edges until they came up with a sound so pristine you can see your own reflection in it even if you’re not a sad bastard. Alligator is clearly the work of the same group that made “Fake Empire,” “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” and “Pink Rabbits,” but listening to it now is like looking at an old photograph of someone you’ve known forever and being stunned by their childlike vigor. No band of this generation has aged more gracefully than the National — before they were middle-aged greats, they were basically middle-aged greats in waiting — yet hearing them fired up like this, feeling their way into something special, remains inspiring after all these years.