"I need some meaning I can memorize," Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst once sang. It was a great lyric about a universal need--the need to not just find meaning in this complicated world, but to reduce that meaning into simple truths we can take with us everywhere. And this exquisite album by The National sounds like it was tailor-made to fill that bill. In fact, these songs aren't just memorizable--they're unforgettable.
First, a little note. By my reckoning, there are two types of music lovers: horn people and string people. Horn people can listen to string music, and vice versa, and large swaths of music have neither instrument, but everyone has a preference between the two. For the most part, horns are happy, upbeat daytime instruments. They do some mournful songs, but it's not an everyday thing. And so horn people are bright and full of sunshine, and they get married and live in the suburbs and have 2.3 kids and are always in bed by 10.
This is a string person's album.
But it's far more than that. "Alligator" is one of the most listenable and captivating and sadly underappreciated albums to come our way since the turn of the millennium. It's an album with a lot to say about our loves and lives and lies. If you're anything like me, you'll listen to it a lot, and the more you listen to it, the more you want to listen to it. And you'll save it for after nightfall, for it's one of those lonely, staring-out-your-window-at-the-night-streets albums.
You can trust this album, because it's honest with its feelings, and because it's consistent in the best possible sense--not the I-don't-have-a-lot-of-ideas sense, but the everything's-in-its-right-place sense. Some of the songs are slow and sad, but even the up-tempo ones aren't happy; they are just full of urgency and immediacy to counter the smoky languor elsewhere. The guitars are sometimes charged and sometimes mellow, the strings are sorrowful, and everything swirls together beautifully. And floating half-submerged through the mix, we hear Matt Berninger's wonderful baritone, always sounding as if it's either drowning in drink or spewing it out in anger. It's a perfect voice for this music, sadder than the strings, lonelier than the walk of shame.
Some people sing to the masses; Berninger's singing for an audience of one. You. Actually, it's not so much you, the listener, as it is "you." You the significant other, you the ex, you the best friend and betrayer, you the member of a relationship so important it rarely needs proper nouns. He does name names, here and there--Karen, John, Val Jester, Abel--but in a sense they don't matter. "You're the low life of the party," he sings on "Lit Up", and you don't know if he's singing at you or singing your thoughts, but it works either way, because if you're anything like me, you've lived these songs as the singer, or the singee, or both, and you can play your mental Mad Libs and fill in your own names as needed.
Still, one senses this is a deeply personal album. "Yeah say something perfect, something I can steal," Berninger sings on "Baby We'll Be Fine," and you know (or at least I know, because I spent years quoting my friends and lovers and presenting it as fiction) that's the line of an artist who is literally putting all of himself into his work. There are plenty of stellar moments on this album, but that song highlights what's best about this band. In it, Berninger chants "I'm so sorry for everything," over and over, so often you end up thinking the guy must be Catholic. The specific meaning's enigmatic, but the effect is still hypnotic; these are the mantras we tell others, and tell ourselves, to make this complicated world make sense.