Dark Was The Night Turns 10
Indie had a big year in 2009. As the first decade of the century drew to a close, there was a slew of major releases from the genre’s dominant, or very-soon-to-be-dominant, names. The year kicked off with Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, still regarded as their masterpiece and a pivotal indie release overall. Soon, Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca and St. Vincent’s Actor and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz! would follow. Phoenix unveiled Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, compelling a young Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a whole lot of other college-age kids to dance to the likes of “Lisztomania” and “1901.” Similarly, Grizzly Bear had a moment of mainstream penetration with Veckatimest, given the ubiquity of “Two Weeks” and shout-outs from Jay-Z. The Antlers’ Hospice and Girls’ Album, two releases that certainly seemed to presage the future at the time, also arrived. And 10 years ago tomorrow, while the year was still young, there was a different kind of collection that tapped into and represented this moment: the compilation Dark Was The Night.
By 2009, the transition away from the early ’00s retro-rock bands towards Brooklyn-ified indie was thoroughly underway. In the years surrounding Dark Was The Night, many of the artists who led that transition released their debuts, their landmark works, or their breakthroughs. Vampire Weekend and Fleet Foxes appeared in early 2008; Bon Iver appeared in 2007, beginning the implausible story of a Midwestern folkie becoming one of the subsequent decade’s most forward-thinking artists; the same year, MGMT unleashed Oracular Spectacular and inadvertently birthed a whole new strain of festival indie. Major individual evolutions unfolded with LCD Soundsystem’s Sound Of Silver, TV On The Radio’s Dear Science, Deerhunter’s Microcastle, M83’s Saturdays = Youth, and Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga — all albums that still rank towards the top of their respective artists’ discographies. The same goes for the National’s crucial turning point in 2007’s Boxer, which in its way helped set the stage for Dark Was The Night, and for everything that came after.
The National were instrumental to Dark Was The Night, but it wasn’t something they cooked up on their own. The album was a benefit compilation for the Red Hot Organization, which had been devoted to fighting HIV/AIDS since 1989. By 2009, there had already been over a dozen compilations released for the cause, including their initial 1990 attempt Red Hot + Blue — which featured iconic names like U2 and David Byrne, the latter of whom would also appear on Dark Was The Night — and 1993’s No Alternative, which tapped into the ’90s alt-rock zeitgeist with inclusions like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Smashing Pumpkins. The organization’s founder, John Carlin, served as executive producer on Dark Was The Night. It was he and Aaron Dessner who approached Beggars Group with the idea for the project. Together with Aaron’s brother Bryce, they went about gathering many of the primary names of indie to come together for a cause.
In the moment, Dark Was The Night felt like a way of boldly underlining a statement along the lines of “This is happening.” (To borrow the title of LCD Soundsystem’s then-swan-song, released a year later.) “On this record, we tried to capture this musical renaissance, which may not have the cultural impact of grunge or punk, but is equally significant from a cultural and creative stand point,” Carlin told Billboard in 2009. “It’s an assertion of Aaron and Bryce’s generation. These artists are not fringe or marginal.” (While not untrue, it’s telling that even in a moment that sought coronation and curation, the status of 21st century indie had to be qualified as so much more insular than bigger rock movements like grunge or punk, despite the emphasis of Carlin’s quote otherwise. But that’s a topic for another essay.) Carlin and the Dessners were pretty successful: Dark Was The Night lives on 10 years later as a document of what had grown over the course of that decade, and a prologue for what was to come in the following one.
There are throughlines. While the story that dominates Dark Was The Night is the rise of indie’s new guard, a host of pioneers and predecessors were present, too. David Byrne’s aforementioned contribution was a collab with Dirty Projectors — an indie godfather both passing the torch and remaining relevant by engaging with his progeny, as he would again in the ensuing years with Arcade Fire and St. Vincent. There were names who, while perhaps more prominent than ever in this moment in time, had already been kicking around for years: Ben Gibbard, Feist, the Decemberists, the New Pornographers, Yo La Tengo, Stuart Murdoch, Conor Oberst, Cat Power. There were outliers, too, including Sharon Jones and Kronos Quartet. (The latter would collaborate again with Bryce Dessner over the years, and for Dark Was The Night they actually offered up the title track — an interpretation of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground,” from which the compilation took its name.)
But what Dark Was The Night was really about was establishing this moment, allowing this exciting new wave of artists to plant a flag. That included the names who had been building indie up in the preceding 10 or 15 years, and that included the names that were just coming into their own across the second half of the decade. Several of those same primary artists who released groundbreaking works in the stretch of ’07-’10, as well as their peers, popped up here: Arcade Fire, Beach House, TVOTR’s Dave Sitek, Beirut, Spoon, Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear (twice over), the National, Dirty Projectors, Bon Iver. Aesthetically, it didn’t sum up everything that was happening in that moment, but it was a far more cohesive glimpse of the baroque and folk-oriented indie that was prevalent in those years than one might’ve expected from such a compilation.
Dark Was The Night avoided the fate of many like-minded comps, too often winding up a slipshod array of B-sides, covers, live recordings, leftovers cobbled together and suggesting the artists involved weren’t that invested in the cause at hand. There were still plenty of covers on the album, sure, but Dark Was The Night was a rare case: a compilation that united so many artists in their prime, for a worthy charity, and also came together as a legible artistic statement on the era.
Of course, it’s still uneven, as such things almost inevitably are. Coming from a band that was already one of the genre’s heavier-hitters, Arcade Fire’s “Lenin” can’t help but feel minor between the apocalyptic frenzy of 2007’s Neon Bible and the expansive ambition of 2010’s The Suburbs. There are entries that, rather than foreshadowing ascensions to come, feel inextricably of their time like, well, the mere presence of Yeasayer and Andrew Bird. Not a year removed from their experimental and messy Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket’s “El Caporal” is a non-album missive from the worst stretch in an otherwise rich career, with cartoonish background vocals and chintzy sax leads.
There were highlights, too. Bon Iver’s “Brackett, WI” hinted at the leap Justin Vernon would make with his self-titled sophomore effort in 2011. Vernon also teamed up with Aaron Dessner for “Big Red Machine,” a characteristically haunting and melancholic track that birthed a collaborative project between the two, eventually yielding a great and somewhat-unheralded album in 2018. Then there was the National’s own contribution, “So Far Around The Bend.” Still maintaining the organic and lived-in qualities of Alligator and Boxer, the song also prefigured the denser sound the band would soon explore, starting with High Violet the following year. It’s as effortless and nimble a pop song as they’ve ever done, with Matt Berninger delivering a sort of conversationally sing-song melody in which he daydreams about getting high out of an apple and Pavement reuniting. (Pavement did reunite the following year.)
It’s hard to overstate how symbolic Dark Was The Night is for the National in general, with the benefit of 10 years of hindsight. Over the course of the three albums they’ve released since, the National got incrementally bigger, becoming a nearly ever-present festival headliner and one of the defining indie/rock acts of our time. With Dark Was The Night, they also placed themselves at the center of this new generation of indie luminaries. From there, Aaron would begin producing, helping artists like Sharon Van Etten break through. The band would subsequently always open up their world for their friends and younger acts, from sharing the stage with Sufjan and St. Vincent, to the curatorial instincts that have continued on through Aaron and Bryce’s various festival endeavors.
They started Eaux Claires with Justin Vernon and have been involved in Copenhagen’s Haven festival as well as events driven by spontaneity and collaboration — like the Berlin-based PEOPLE, which also exists as a collective and an online trove of music. Seven years after Dark Was The Night, they’d spearhead another Red Hot compilation called Day Of The Dead. This time, it was a sprawling five-and-a-half-hour collection of Grateful Dead covers, featuring several of the same artists as Dark Was The Night while expanding outwards to depict the first half of the ’10s as well. Rather than a one-off, Dark Was The Night was an integral stepping stone for the National, leading to them fostering and lifting up a community, placing themselves in the middle of a web as they gained more notoriety.
Across 2009, Dark Was The Night was followed by those big indie albums, each a moment in which those bands reached further and wider than we might’ve thought possible. In the years following, the moment that Carlin and the Dessners hoped to capture on the compilation bloomed. In 2010, you had those aforementioned milestones from the National and Bon Iver and Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem, all living on as triumphs from these acts and helping shape the decade to come. St. Vincent returned in 2011 with Strange Mercy, now the centerpiece of what’s become a wild 10-year transformation. Just about two years after Dark Was The Night, the Aaron Dessner-produced Tramp put Sharon Van Etten on the map in a whole new way. Vampire Weekend followed that ’08 debut with Contra in 2010 and Modern Vampires Of The City in 2013, garnering greater acclaim with each endeavor. The year after Dark Was The Night was released, Justin Vernon was singing on a Kanye West album.
At the time, this was a crazy and somewhat befuddling ride. All these acts seemed definitive if you lived in New York, if you read sites like this, if you nursed an affinity for indie rock. But it was an entirely different thing to witness what happened next, to have someone like Justin Vernon, of all people, becoming a dark-horse pop entity and releasing genre-obliterating electronic-based albums. To have the National appearing on Hunger Games soundtracks. To have any of these albums selling actual numbers. To have names like Arcade Fire and the National and, later on, the War On Drugs and Father John Misty, Sharon Van Etten and St. Vincent, begin to occupy prime, crowd-conquering slots on festival lineups not just around the States but internationally. To have Sufjan and St. Vincent onstage, just last year, at the Oscars. To have St. Vincent, just earlier this week, performing on the Grammys with Dua Lipa.
All of this feels pretty far away from the late ’00s indie moment, from something like Dark Was The Night and the little corner of the world it illustrated. Many of these artists remain affiliated, but shot off in their own directions. So the sounds, and their individual narratives, become more and more distant from the specificity of ’00s indie, and that baroque sound, and Brooklyn, or whatever. They grew beyond that chapter, untethered from a particular subculture as any artists become as they grow into the greats of their generation.
Yet 2009 will always be a pivotal transition, one of those years we can look back on that marks the shift from one decade’s aesthetic and trends to another’s. Dark Was The Night sat right in the middle of all that, the hinge point between a crop of significant 2009 indie releases. But it’s also the hinge point between bigger passages. It recapped how we had gotten there thus far, made an early attempt at depicting this constellation of artists and the times they represented. And it opened the door for all of them to continue on, to grow far beyond the limits of those origins.