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The National Find Emotional Balance

With Alligator, The National's third full-length album and first on Beggars Group, this Brooklyn-based, Ohio-born band of brothers assembles an artful collection of mini-stories, evocative lines buried glimmering in dark pop corners, rock outbursts emerging from ruminative sketches. A slow-burning masterwork, Alligator changes every time you listen to it, with new details arresting your attention and new verse fragments lodging in your head. (Listen to the album at www.beggars.com/features/thenational/.)

Following on 2003's Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, the new record seems, at first impression, more rock-oriented and upbeat than previous efforts. Yet singer/songwriter Matt Berninger, interviewed by email recently, says Alligator is not really a departure. "Alligator contains a healthy amount of sad, dirty stuff so if we were trying to avoid that, we failed," he explained. "The press has seemed a little too focused on the dark sides of our records, but I never felt like we were in a corner. I think both Sad Songs and Alligator are emotionally balanced in that they're sad, funny, tender, irrational, furious and euphoric and we have no plan to avoid any of that."

The National formed in the late 1990s, moving from Cincinnati to Brooklyn, and drawing Berninger together with brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf and Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Their self-titled debut, out in 2001, drew wide praise, with No Depression calling it "a dozen picture-perfect Americana bar-soaked gems" and Billboard a "dazzling debut." It was followed in 2003 by Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, darkly evocative tales of broken love and compromise, whose highlights included "Slipping Husband" and "Cardinal Song." A year later, the EP Cherry Tree, the band's last release on small indie Brassland, followed.

A move to Beggars followed in 2004, providing wider exposure, but, according to Berninger, having no effect on the band's whiskey-soaked and literate sound. "Roger Trust and Martin Mills had apparently been fans for a while," he said. "When they heard we were looking for a label, they called. There were other labels interested but Beggars was on the top of our wish list so it didn't take us long to make the move."

He added, "It didn't change the way we work. They said 'We're already huge fans so do whatever you want.' They didn't hear Alligator until it was finished."

Alligator was recorded in the same lo-key, home-based manner as previous National albums. Paul Mahajan engineered most of the tracks, setting up at the band's Red Hook practice space and at Berninger and Bryce Dessner's homes. Peter Katsis did additional recording at Tarquin Studios and mixed the album. "We've always made our records by hopping around to different places with different people," Berninger said. "We've never just booked several weeks in one studio to do the whole thing. We like to take our time and be flexible."

The album draws mostly on the country-tinged sounds of its conventional rock band lineup — two guitars, bass, drums and vocals — yet like other National albums, it weaves in some subtle, gorgeous string arrangements provided by a sixth shadow member, Padma Newsome. Newsome, who lives mostly in Australia and collaborates with Bryce Dessner in Clogs, played violin and viola on Alligator and orchestrated its broad palette of classical instruments — the cello that burnishes "City Middle," and the clarinet and bassoon at the beginning of the lovely "Geese of Beverly Road," among other flourishes. "We've worked with [Newsome] on our last three records," Berninger said. "We send him sketches which he works with, then eventually camps out with us in Brooklyn to record. He's a great collaborator fond of throwing curveballs into the music. He's the sixth member but likes to keep his distance. We don't blame him."

Lyrically, the songs of Alligator feel like abbreviated short stories, with much implied but little spelled out. Puzzling, evocative, sexually charged and weighted with world-weary acceptance and disappointment, lines pop out of the fabric of songs and lodge in your head — "I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain," "My medium-sized American heart," "I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders," "Serve me the sky with a big slice of lemon." Many of them seem like detailed interior monologues, thought but never spoken, though when asked about this, Berninger responded, "You raise an interesting question. If a conversation between two people takes place in your head, is it an interior monologue or dialogue? I think dialogue."

He added, "I do occasionally steal bits of real conversations or little scraps from movies and TV. Heir to the Glimmering World is a Cynthia Ozick novel that came out while I was finishing the lyrics to 'The Geese of Beverly Rd.' It was just what I needed, thanks Cynthia." This song, he explains, is set in the neighborhood of Brooklyn where he and Bryce Dessner lived during the recording of Alligator, a place called Ditmas Park.

"It's a beautiful neighborhood that feels more like Savannah, Georgia than Brooklyn," he said. "The houses are all free-standing with nice yards and wrap-around porches. I was sitting outside one night watching a bunch of kids running up and down Beverly setting off car alarms. The song is theirs. Recording out there was nice, very relaxed."

Yet while settings may be familiar and phrases may be lifted, Berninger cautions that no one should take his songs as a literal interpretation of any aspect of his life. He said, "The songs are not quite autobiographical. They're combinations of real situations and delusional storytelling. They're things I care about, obsessions, insecurities, fantasies, etc. There are a lot of naked awkward moments in the songs but I don't feel over-exposed. It's fun to dig into the ugly, ridiculous corners of our psyches and shine a light into it. Again, some of it is just juicy fiction."

The National are presently in Europe, and will play more dates in the UK in November. Tour dates can be found at the band's Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [Tuesday, August 23, 2005]

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