The Anniversary

The National Turns 20

Brassland
2001
Brassland
2001

The day Trouble Will Find Me came out felt like a feverish culmination. It was brutally, disgustingly hot and humid in New York, and the National were running all over town, playing a set of surprise shows that retraced their steps through origin stories: first at the tiny Ditmas Park bar Sycamore, blocks from Aaron Dessner’s house/studio; then the now-defunct Williamsburg venue Public Assembly, already rechristened from Galapagos, as it had been called when the National played it in the ’00s; and, finally, over to Manhattan for Mercury Lounge, the venue the National had played plenty of times but had never sold out until that night. It was the day I graduated college, and amidst all that I got a text from a friend who’d managed to get us Mercury Lounge tickets. After the day’s ceremonies wrapped up, I took a train downtown, still suited up and drenched in sweat, to see the National play a room they’d once only dreamed of filling.

Of course, they were well past the point where they could sell out Mercury Lounge, and on that night a whole other venue’s worth of people waited outside trying to snag last minute tickets. But in the band’s earliest days, Mercury Lounge was a place they did play and never filled. It was also a venue of particular importance to Matt Berninger, who once regarded it as the real-deal NYC proving grounds, the place the Strokes and all the cool bands played. After the breakthroughs of Alligator and Boxer and the solidification of the National as indie luminaries with High Violet, much had already been made of the group’s unlikely, slow-burn ascent to becoming one of the biggest rock bands of their generation. That Mercury Lounge show was a momentous night, all of us crammed into a sweltering, claustrophobic room hearing the band debut new songs and take a well-deserved victory lap.

The journey to that moment had been a long one. As everyone got acquainted with the National over the latter half of the ’00s and into the early ’10s, the story really began with Alligator, but not without acknowledgment of the prologue: the National’s first few years, a bunch of Cincinnati transplants out of step with the New York scene of the time and trying to make a name for themselves. The National did not begin fully-formed. It took years of searching to figure out who they really were as a band, which meant that on that night at the Mercury Lounge — after many moments that had already provided payoffs for their patience and tenacity — it felt like they had truly, finally arrived a little over a decade removed from humbler beginnings. Those beginnings, and the band’s story, started with a self-titled debut album that came out 20 years ago tomorrow.

Everyone involved in the National had some musical history. In college at Miami of Ohio, Berninger fronted a band called Nancy, which also included his friend and future National bassist Scott Devendorf. Also back in Ohio, Scott’s brother Bryan played in Project Nim with twins named Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Fast forward to the mid-to-late-’90s, and they’d all relocated to New York. The way the story was often told was that the band had all settled into white-collar careers and had left dreams of the artist life behind, hence their expertise in cataloguing a certain middle-class ennui in their music. That was at least partially true for Berninger, who was working his way up the ranks at an office job; the Dessners scraped by as guitar teachers and taking odd gigs. Eventually, Berninger and the Devendorfs and Aaron Dessner linked up to form the National.

It was a much different era of New York, another element of the National’s story that was often emphasized in moments like that climactic Mercury Lounge performance. Berninger lived in a ramshackle loft in a not-yet-gentrified Gowanus. The focal point of the music scene was still lower Manhattan, and the early ‘00s would see the explosion of the retro rock revival there, spearheaded by the Strokes. The National were there in that moment, and releasing music during it, but had little to do with any of it. Compared to the sense of downtown cool and the angular haircuts and riffs of all the New York bands, the National probably did seem like lost, square Ohio boys. This was something Berninger was acutely aware of, not just in how he idolized bands like the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs or pined for that Mercury Lounge stage, but because the band were sometimes right up against this stuff. One of his oft-repeated anecdotes was about sharing practice space near Interpol. As he told SPIN in 2013:

We practiced next to [Interpol] and I remember hearing them for the first time through the wall and thinking, “Wow, that band is really, really good and this is great; we’re in a healthy, creative space here. Then, a couple of days later, SPIN was shooting [Interpol] in the hallway of the practice space and they all just looked so cool in their suits. I had my khaki pants on from work and had to weave through them as they were taking photos, feeling the entire time like, “Fuck, we’re definitely not those guys.” But we were always aware of the distance between us and those bands. We weren’t going to connect with people on that level. From day one, we wished we were cool. But we weren’t, not like them. We were going to have to connect with people on an emotional level.

It’s now funny to think: The National have long since surpassed many of those bands in stature, longevity, and cultural cache. But it wouldn’t be The National that got them there. The debut album depicted the National in an embryonic stage. At various points, band members have reflected on those times, saying it was really an attempt just to see if they could do it, to see how it worked if they made music together. Bryce Dessner wasn’t even a full-time member yet. “Both those first records are us trying to discover what kind of band to be, what kind of band not to be,” Berninger told me when I interviewed him last year.

The version of the National on the debut album was a far cry from what they’re known for now. There was an almost roots-tinged, alt-country quality to the album, with Berninger’s baritone already refined but the music underneath him primarily casual, unobtrusive arrangements built around acoustic guitars. You didn’t have the Dessner twins’ interlocking arpeggios yet, nor Bryan and Scott Devendorf’s tightly coiled rhythms, nor the intricate orchestration; Berninger’s lyrics were rougher-hewn, too, not yet blossoming into the evocative imagistic approach of later albums nor having the bleak-then-hilarious balance he’s so often able to strike. It’s easier to find writing about The National from the rearview, when the band had more notoriety. But the stuff from back then can be a bemusing time capsule, like a Pitchfork article that framed it entirely as a passable album to tide the writer over in the absence of fresh David Berman music, hence this kicker: “Frontman Berninger hasn’t found a distinct voice yet, in his singing or his lyrics, but I get the feeling he very well could someday soon. Until then, they just remind me of how much I want to hear the new Silver Jews album.”

While that may be overly uncharitable (and very much a relic of early online music criticism), it’s true that The National would’ve given few the proper expectations for what was to come. Here you have not just simpler songs, but a rough sketch of a band as a whole. They hadn’t quite found their identity yet, and they obviously didn’t fit in with what was going on around them; the latter would later prove advantageous, allowing them to instead define a different movement in New York rock music. But 20 years later, the album does mostly stand as a curio for diehards who want to know the whole story.

It’s not without its charms and gems, though. The brisk opener “Beautiful Head” and “Cold Girl Fever,” with its very early ‘00s turn-of-the-century synths, are both easy to get stuck in your head. “Son” and “Bitters & Absolut” are the songs that most foreshadow what would become the National’s aesthetic and songwriting approach; not coincidentally, they are also the better songs on the album and the ones you could actually imagine transposed to new life if the band wanted to revisit them today. Then, of course, there was one song that literally did become a part of future National: The grainy “29 Years” would be repurposed as the powerful denouement of “Slow Show” on Boxer.

From here, the National would evolve in leaps. While The National is relegated to the concerns of superfans and diehards, its 2003 successor Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers is actually quite underrated — they’re still figuring themselves out, but the songs are better and more distinctly point to the band’s identity coming into focus, with tracks like “Available” and “Lucky You” living on as actual old-school classics in the catalog. The Cherry Tree EP, with its hushed version of the soon-to-be live epic “About Today” and “All The Wine,” marked the actual cohering of the National, one that set the stage for Alligator and everything that followed.

Revisiting The National today probably won’t lead you to any major revelations or reevaluations. It remains a solid album that sounds like the work of a different band — because it essentially is — and would’ve been lost to history if that band didn’t become the one we now know. Instead, going back to The National is more about reflecting on two decades of the band being in our lives.

At the same time that the Mercury Lounge night was momentous, it was already quaint. Weeks later, the National would officially take their brand of existential angst arena-rock to an actual arena, Brooklyn’s Barclays Center — itself another signifier of a New York radically altered since the band’s gestation. For a time the band’s story would move in parallel to shifting currents in New York’s music and culture, then they would depart and spread further out. It’s now been almost 10 years since that night, too, with the band continuing to operate at an artistic and critical peak. Twenty years after its release, The National could seem quaint as well when you are aware of what was around the corner. But, to borrow a line from one of the band’s influences, Bruce Springsteen once put it well: From small things, big things one day come.

Starting today, the National’s music is available on Bandcamp for the first time.

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