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On “Love Is Dead,” Chvrches Lean Into Their Moment in the Pop Spotlight

Chvrches singer Lauren Mayberry likens famed producer Greg Kurstin’s basement studio in Los Angeles to a bunker. A quiet, underground shelter, the space proved an ideal sanctuary for recording Love Is Dead, the band’s third album, which dropped last week. Mayberry and bandmates Martin Doherty and Iain Cook had instant chemistry with Kurstin, known for his work with Adele, Sia, and Beck. “We just went into a little hole,” says Mayberry. What they emerged with is the only synthpop album you need to hear this summer. 

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“Going down into that basement in Los Angeles all day and making a record, and then coming outside every day and being hit with this unbelievably intense sunshine — that’s basically our band,” says Doherty. “There’s both sides of what we do. And that’s what we’re trying to do on this record, bring both of those things into focus.”

Ever since the band burst out of the Scottish gloom early in the decade, Chvrches have bridged the world of indie and mainstream music, hiding deeply introspective lyrics within confoundingly catchy pop songs and dance-floor anthems. All three members of the trio are from small towns outside of Glasgow, and they came together in September 2011, when Cook and Doherty asked Mayberry to sing on some demos. With a sound honed from Cook’s and Doherty’s years kicking around the local music scene, and lyrics sharpened by Mayberry’s time working as a freelance writer, Chvrches seemed to emerge as a fully formed pop juggernaut.

The band attracted near-instant buzz when it posted early tracks “The Mother We Share” and “Lies” online; an EP emerged in November 2012. After signing with Glassnote Records the following year, the band embarked on a slew of North American tour dates, including an appearance at SXSW and a performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Their debut studio album, The Bones of What You Believe, was released in 2013, with Every Open Eye following in 2015.

While their music has enough pop sensibility to fit comfortably on the radio, Chvrches don’t consider themselves pop stars. “A band like the Cure can have songs played on the radio,” says Mayberry of the path the group  is on, “and they’re technically pop music and catchy as fuck, but they were still introspective and weird.” The band has yet to see a single break into the Top 10, yet each year it climbs closer to headline slots at festivals like Coachella, Austin City Limits, and Outside Lands. This weekend they’re back in New York at the Governors Ball, on June 3. 

Love Is Dead, their first record with an outside producer and their first recorded in the U.S., arrives at an auspicious time for Chvrches. Mayberry has long spoken out about misogyny in the music industry — notably in an op-ed that appeared in the Guardian in 2013. And while the album isn’t expressly political, Chvrches encourage fans to listen beyond the lyrics about personal relationships and growing older, and consider the content at large. “I don’t want people to be picking apart this and analyzing that, based on what they know about me as a person,” says Mayberry. “I want them to think about what it means to them.” 

In describing what the album sounds like to her, Mayberry explains, “It kind of just sounds like trying to figure things out, you know? It’s not necessarily making a huge depressing statement. It’s more about trying to figure out, like, once you feel a certain way about things or once you know too much or finally know enough, how can you proceed in a way that’s positive, and where you find the hope in those kinds of situations.”

Choruses on Love Is Dead sound bigger and bolder than anything we’ve heard from the band before, yet lyrically this album explores the undercurrent of melancholy and political anxiety that’s always been a part of Chrvches’ work. Early singles “Gun” and “Bury It” reflect their tendency to play with violent imagery, masked in shiny synths. There’s an inherent darkness to their music. In the bright-sounding “Graves,” off their new album, Mayberry sings of the current refugee crisis (“Do you really believe that you can never be sure/They’re leaving bodies in stairwells/And washing up on the shore”), the idea of ignorance being bliss (“If I only see what I can see I know it isn’t there”), and the inaction of our political leadership (“Looking away, you’re looking away/from all that we’ve done”).

“You can have a song like ‘Miracle’ on the record, or ‘Get Out,’ which is a fucking sunny pop song that repeats the same two words over again in the chorus, because that’s pop music,” Doherty says. “But at the same time, I want to put a song like ‘God’s Plan’ on that album, that’s about depression and the futility of being fucking alive. That song is just as valid in this band and I think at the core of everything we’ve done up until this point.”

Mayberry is in the rare position of having written music and art criticism in the past, prior to putting her band’s work out into the world to face judgment. Love Is Dead has received both exceedingly positive and decidedly lukewarm reviews, and while Mayberry tries not to read them, she has no qualms about sharing her thoughts on the matter. “All I ever want is to feel something and be made to feel something. Beyond that, I don’t know if I am right or wrong or if someone else is the other. But I’d rather be here trying to be a part of it and engaging than sitting on the side, being negative and trying to analyse human behaviour without actually taking part in it or doing anything,” she wrote in a recent post on Instagram. “This rhetoric is kind of bullshit. Not because it’s a ‘bad’ review, but beyond that. If you don’t like the music, fine. If you don’t like me, fine/I feel you 99% of the time. But please don’t make this music and this record a symbol or scapegoat for something else.”

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Mayberry’s sense of frustration is apparent from the album’s title, which reflects the idea that we exist in a time void of empathy — whether for victims of human rights abuses or those we interact with on a day-to-day basis. “We’re fucked, the world is fucked,” says Cook. “But there’s an ellipsis at the end. It’s Love Is Dead… Like, how did we get to this point? And how do we move on from this point?” 

Maybe their reckoning, is that we too need to wake the fuck up. Or finally, that the answer isn’t in the knitty gritty of the lyrics at all — instead of picking them apart, we must arrive at it on our own.

Perhaps Chvrches want to deliver us from evil, shining their light into the world’s darkest corners, just as their music penetrated and brightened the “bunker” that is Kurstin’s underground studio. “I feel like the idea that pop can’t be artful, or can’t be meaningful in any way, is snobbery, I suppose,” Mayberry explains. “So, I’m just trying to do both. Get yourself a band that can do both.”

Chvrches play Governors Ball on Sunday, June 3.

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In Mistaken for Strangers, a Familial Hanger-On Makes a Doc about The National

In Mistaken for Strangers, filmmaker Tom Berninger uses brother Matt, lead singer of indie rock band The National, to feel better about himself. This is especially frustrating since Tom reunites with Matt while The National perform and promote their chart-topping album High Violet, itself worth a film.

But since Mistaken for Strangers is all about Tom, there’s virtually no uninterrupted concert footage. At first, Tom presents himself as a goofy, insensitive kid. He spills milk all over his and Matt’s shared hotel room, forgets to tell Matt that Werner Herzog and the cast of Lost are waiting to party with the band, and pouts when he can’t join The National when they meet President Obama. That might have been funny if Tom weren’t always pouting, like when he whines, “You’re way more famous than any of my friends,” and Matt stammers back, “That’s . . . OK.”

Tom further stokes his rivalry with Matt by having his mom compare the brothers’ childhood drawings; she abashedly insists that Matt was always her “most talented” son. Tom even comes off like a putz after he admits that Matt’s success is well-earned. He listens thoughtfully when Matt says he’s grateful that The National aren’t performing for empty auditoriums anymore.

But when Tom finally shares his brother’s success, and holds Matt’s mic cord when he dives into a packed auditorium, it’s too little, too late. Tom predictably shifts Mistaken for Strangers‘ focus back to himself in the film’s concluding scene when a friend asks if he’s done making his film: “I’m getting close. Just let me figure it out.”

Mistaken for Strangers doesn’t reveal anything about Tom but his own insecurity.

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Colin Stetson

Experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson is arguably indie-rock’s most in-demand woodwind specialist, having performed with Arcade Fire, Feist, and the National in addition to earning critical acclaim for the series of solo albums, the most recent of which was 2013’s New History Warfare Vol 3: To See More Light. It’s as a performer, though, that Stetson’s formidable technique really shines. Forsaking loop pedals in favor of circular breathing and percussive playing, his physicality makes for an intimate viewing experience that rivals any of his better-known indie peers emotional range.

Sun., Feb. 9, 8 p.m., 2014

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RIDING HIGH

This time last year, members of the National were wrapping up 2010 by nabbing sweet spots on a bevy of Top-10 lists with their fifth album, High Violet. Twelve months later, the Brooklyn gloom merchants are shutting down 2011 with a week’s worth of shows at the 2,800-capacity Beacon Theatre, each featuring a different indie-famous opening act. So cheer up, dudes—you’ve made it!

Tue., Dec. 13, 8 p.m., 2011

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Spoon

Spoon’s skeletal electro-steeze has inspired more modern musicians than the Strokes; just listen to the latest tracks of their touring mates the National and the Arcade Fire. To follow up their smash Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon went subliminal this January, snipping off clips and clusters of songs to create an auditory experiment on Transference that sounded like group losing their grip. It doesn’t matter; when you have hooks as razor tight as “I Turn My Camera On” and a singer who hates indie rock but defines it (the band was voted Metacritic’s Artist “of the Decade”), you no longer have to play by the rules. You’ve made them. With Sean Bones.

Mon., Sept. 13, 8:30 p.m., 2010

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The National Is Uncomfortably Fun

The National’s lead singer, Matt Berninger, is a baritone of the tallest order, a lurching, lanky charmer who awkwardly bumbles through live sets, yet somehow simultaneously exudes a cool, nonchalant attitude about the whole thing. Shambolic, metaphorically wart-ridden, and uncomfortably vulnerable, he’s more interested in exposing weakness than projecting strength—more apt to stagger among us than tower above us.

He has done this for 10 years now, over the course of the National’s five albums, the first few (starting with their self-titled 2001 debut) exploring acoustic arrangements and simple guitar hooks. Slowly, they’ve drifted into more grandiose orchestral-pop territory, as on this week’s High Violet, their highest-profile release yet, a sharper and more immediate take on 2007’s much-loved Boxer. Berninger’s haunting voice is the one constant, now familiar but still inscrutable, intent on relaying some essential truth even as he’s constantly obscuring it. He’s sorta hard to figure out. But maybe not.

At 39, Berninger is no rookie—this is actually his second career. Most aspiring New York City rockers show up in their early 20s and immediately hit whatever stage they can find, but he arrived in 1996 as a rising star of graphic design, working for Icon Nicholson, a start-up company that designed ATM interfaces. He rose from junior designer to creative director in eight years, as the company’s payroll expanded from three people to 120. “I was one of the heads of the company, flying to Stockholm for meetings with clients,” he recalls in the backyard of Flatbush Farm, an organic spot in the Prospect Heights/Park Slope vortex. “And it was awesome, in a way. But the last few years were about firing friends, laying people off.”

Finally, Berninger laid himself off, just prior to the tour for 2005’s Alligator, the record that catapulted the quintet to a sizable audience outside New York. “I think that’s part of the reason we worked so hard on this band—when we’d started, we’d done the professional thing, and did well at it,” he explains. “In a way, there was a pressure off the band. We knew we could survive in a world as professional adults. I could be a grown man, I could pay my own bills. We knew we weren’t going to be the Sex Pistols or the Strokes. We were never going to be these young, violent, sexy freaks that are so cool.”

He’d known that for a while, actually. Born and raised in Cincinnati, Berninger describes his teen self as “really skinny with a big nose, and insecure around girls . . . But that’s probably every kid’s impression of themselves. What was I like? I don’t know. I just know what I felt, and it was pretty dorky.” Then his sister introduced him to the Smiths and Violent Femmes, freeing him to revel in his inner (and outer) dork. “I started looking at pictures of rock stars—they’re some of the dorkiest. Keith Richards, Pete Townshend. Those guys aren’t the quarterbacks, you know?”

He met future National bassist Scott Devendorf at the University of Cincinnati—their first band was called Nancy, with Berninger on vocals because he couldn’t contribute in any other way. (He took piano lessons when he was eight: a “traumatic, horrible experience.”) “I remember him being a natural leader, but without being a dick,” Devendorf recalls. “He’s an awkward guy, but in a funny way. Lately, he’s been calling himself ‘the Chevy Chase of indie rock.’ He just stumbles into situations.”

Watching him onstage over the years, you get that feeling. He’s a bumbler, a stage drifter, sometimes lost, sometimes not. “I’m just shy of total failure,” he deadpans about his live shows. “There’s something awkward about what we’re doing. Not by design, but it has an unpolished and borderline foolish and embarrassed exposure. Maybe that’s what people relate to a little bit.”

All this makes him stand out from his NYC nominal-rock-star peers. Julian Casablancas: too cool, too aloof. James Murphy: too jaded, too arch. The Grizzly Bear dudes: too soft, too gentle. Dave Longstreth: too cerebral, too academic. Karen O: too shrieky, too stylish. The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn: too duuuude, too well read. Anyone in Interpol: too polished, too poised. Berninger flirts with all those qualities, but doesn’t overplay any of them: a near-perfect mix of the personalities that surround us every day. The guy in your apartment building obsessed with his new new-media job. The trivia hound at the bar who’s so sure Hanna-Barbera cartoons are art. The guy in film school who used to be a jock who made fun of film schools. The guy you slept with last night who hasn’t called. The guy who wants you back. The guy who looks depressed and lonely as he reads novels you think you’ve heard of on the 2 train. The guy who says he loves you and means it; the guy who says he loves you and might not. The guy who hates himself but loves his biker rights. The guy who feels so alienated in a big city, finds the bright lights blinding and the noise deafening, but will never leave because he’s too afraid to live anywhere else.

Berninger’s lyrics evoke these sentiments abstractedly: scraps and asides and fragments that sometimes draw from real things and real conversations, woven together in a way that feels obtuse and glum, but that he insists is “emotional, exciting, fun.” He says that High Violet is a “fun record,” his morose baritone notwithstanding. (On “Lemonworld,” he talks about inventing a “summer-lovin’ torture party”—if you’re taking that too seriously, that’s a whole set of other issues outside his control.) “People don’t know what I’m talking about when I say that, but it is fun, to dig into these ugly, dark sides of relationships, or your own obsessions and fears. Putting together these abstract collages that feel really funny, or cathartic, or just a way of spilling your guts about something that’s hard to talk about.”

Abstract repetition is one of his major weapons: Even if you don’t know what Squalor Victoria is, after moaning it a dozen or so times, it sounds like he does. Other times, it’s not even abstract. On “Slow Show,” from Boxer, he leads with “Standing at the punch table, swallowing punch”—writers always get chastised for this stuff, but Berninger adores it. On High Violet, there’s a song called “Anyone’s Ghost,” wherein he admits, “Didn’t want to be your ghost/Didn’t want to be anyone’s ghost.” Many words rhyme with ghost: boast, most, post, host, roast, toast. But they won’t do. “Ghost” it is. Or take the moment on “Runaway,” the new record’s pinnacle, an epic tear-jerker as far as National songs go, in which he declares bluntly, like a man finally ready to grow up, “I won’t be no runaway/’Cause I won’t run.”

“That’s one of the best lines on the record,” the singer insists. “It’s much better to say that rather than ‘I’ll be around because I love you so much.’ It’s a hypnotic way of saying something, over and over again. You see people who are quote-unquote crazy, where they’re repeating themselves. But there’s something comfortable about that, when that happens in songs. You see it in prayer a lot, in spiritual things, where they repeat things over and over again. The idea is, if you say something enough times, it’ll come true. Make something reality. You see that in all kinds of spoken tradition and storytelling. And songs are kinda like that.”

“Matt’s a surprising lyricist . . . he surprises us,” says National guitarist Bryce Dessner. “We know when he’s written something good, but sometimes it takes us a little while to get used to. When I first heard [High Violet‘s] “Conversation 16,” where he says, ‘I was afraid I’d eat your brains,’ I was like, ‘Whoa.’ But now it’s my favorite moment of the record.”

To that end—the brain-eating end—the National’s songs aren’t all gloom and doom. “The underappreciated factor is the really ridiculous, melodramatic lyrics, where they’re supposed to be funny,” Devendorf confirms. “No one’s ultra-depressed. We’re not on any anti-psychotic medication.”

Berninger agrees. “I think there’s a lot more humor in the songs that gets overlooked. But I guess that’s my fault: I guess I’m not as funny as I thought. But there are lines like, ‘I tell you miserable things after you’re asleep’—I think they’re hilarious, but I sing them really sincerely. Which makes them funnier. The best humor is a little uncomfortable, and there’s a lot of that in our music. At least I think I do that. Sometimes it’s misheard. If you bounce that goofy, reckless, ugly stuff off a really heartfelt, sincere line, the energy between those moments . . . that’s where the comedy is.”

It’s this dichotomy that helps Berninger define what it’s like for millions of transplanted New Yorkers­—outsiders at heart, with complex emotions but maybe not quite as melodramatic as they look, bumbling their way through concrete days. “When I lived in Ohio, I learned about New York by watching Woody Allen movies,” Berninger says. “I had this fantastical vision of what New York was. This romantic abstraction. I still feel like that, living here. I always feel like I’m on some set of some awesome movie.” Don’t we all?

The National play Brooklyn Academy of Music on May 15, Radio City Music Hall on June 16, and the Prospect Park Bandshell on July 27

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FAKE EMPIRE

Two local acts play a pretty big venue. Both The National and Yeasayer have the sort of ambition commensurate to the task of entertaining thousands of people in America’s most famous urban idyll; the sonics differ, but the dynamics—e.g., constant swelling—do not. The National earned a lot of goodwill from their last two records, 2005’s Alligator and 2007’s Boxer, which both put frontman Matt Berninger’s too-grave-for-indie baritone up front, a savvy decision for a band pitching itself to dudes who’ve run out of Springsteen records to buy. They’re suited to making the moment theirs, like it or not. Meanwhile, Yeasayer are four extremely dopey-looking guys who nod at both new age and African pop on their way to becoming what this publication once called “the Rusted Root it’s okay to like.” Come for the drum circles; stay for the catharsis. With Plants and Animals.

Mon., Aug. 4, 6:30 p.m., 2008

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HOMETOWN ADVANTAGE

There’s a certain depth to how Brooklyn indie rockers The National texture their songs that other bands lack. For all the comparisons to equally moody forefathers like Leonard Cohen, Tindersticks, and Nick Cave, the National have mastered the intangible quality that makes those performers great: restraint. For instance, despite having two guitarists, vocalist Matt Berninger sounds comfortable crooning dark poetry over only a drumbeat on 2005’s “Secret Meeting,” and 2007’s “Mistaken for Strangers” has nearly as sparse an arrangement despite sounding incredibly lush. It’s this savoir faire that will make them fit in well at BAM’s opera house—perhaps even better than at a dingy club. Last year’s Boxer topped many critics’ year-end lists and came in at No. 10 on Pazz & Jop, so the middlebrow group has really earned its place among New York’s highbrow—even if only for a night. With My Brightest Diamond

Sat., Feb. 23, 8 p.m., 2008

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The National’s Anthems

No one knew quite how to react Tuesday night when Matt Berninger, frontman for Brooklyn quintet the National, started hopping around maniacally on one foot and screaming My mind is not right! My mind is not right! My mind is not right!, addressing this violent proclamation largely to the ceiling. This is unsettling opening-act behavior. The sold-out crowd, ultimately gathered here at Harlem’s luscious United Palace Theatre to see the almighty Arcade Fire, regarded Matt with amusement and concern. The screaming, we’d mostly expected, My mind is not right! being the relentless chorus to “Abel,” one of the catchiest (and loudest) songs on the National’s excellent ’05 record Alligator. The hopping though—strange. Especially since “Abel” came early in the set, and Matt precariously wobbled and bounced through every song thereafter, mostly quieter, calmer, subtler, more piano-driven affairs. The effect was disorienting.

“Is he hurt or something?” demanded the woman next to me. Huh. Either that or it was an artistic flourish, some sort of metaphor—a political statement about American isolation—perhaps.

Perhaps not. “I actually tripped over myself—my microphone stand,” Matt admits the following afternoon, having hobbled from Radio City Music Hall (where both the National and the Arcade Fire would perform again that evening) to a nearby café. Matt considered lying about this, passing it off as an homage to Michael Stipe, or maybe Jethro Tull. Why bother, though? “I probably looked like an idiot,” he says, resigned. “That’s showbiz.”

“I thought you were really drunk, and you fell down and you couldn’t stand up,” admits bassist-guitarist Aaron Dessner—one of the National’s two sets of siblings (his brother Bryce and Bryan and Scott Devendorf round out the band)—as they reflect on the show. “I was about to get angry, like, ‘C’mon!’ ”

“I think Bryan at one point was like, What are you doing?” Matt recalls. “I had tears in my eyes—’I’m hurt!’ ”

Bryan, meanwhile, evidently had snare-drum issues. Matt and Aaron don’t seem too happy about Tuesday night’s set. Opening-act ennui, maybe. Or perhaps they were dwarfed and intimidated by the United Palace Theatre—a frilly monster of a venue, considering the National, Cincinnati expats and longtime Brooklynites all, once regarded selling out the Mercury Lounge as the pinnacle of success. Consider also that they’re opening for the Arcade Fire, a cultural phenomenon in full orgiastic arena-rock bloom, with enough joyous spectacle and grandma-throttling enthusiasm to make Justin Timberlake look like Leonard Cohen.

Any band in such a delirious environment would look tremendously subdued. And the National are already profoundly laid-back guys: Although near set’s end, Matt hopped menacingly through “Mr. November,” the band’s loudest (and finest) song to date—this time directing screams of I won’t fuck us over! I’m Mr. November! I’m Mr. November! I won’t fuck us over! at the ceiling—the band mostly favors intricate, slow-to-mid-tempo, almost funereal barroom laments. Bukowskian, but benevolent, and in slow motion. Like the Arcade Fire, there’s more than a touch of the Boss at work here, but whereas the headliners channeled fist-pumping, crowd-elating Springsteen, the National preferred the bummed, beery, forlorn flipside. “By comparison, we’re pretty dismal,” Aaron says. Like Nebraska opening for Born to Run.

Springsteen evidently loves the National, by the way. “We hung out with him one night after this Nebraska tribute,” Aaron recalls. “One thing he talked a lot about was, as your audience grows, you’ve gotta figure out how to play to the people in the very back, standing up. I remember thinking, ‘That’s pretty irrelevant advice for us right now.’ I think he had a skewed idea of how big we are. Now it’s all coming true.”

“He gave U2 the exact same advice he gave us,” Matt adds.

“You gotta create the wave, and then you gotta ride the wave,” Aaron explains, stifling a giggle.

“Bruce was under the impression we were pretty huge,” Matt concludes, not stifling a giggle. “Still good advice. Someday we will have an opportunity to use it.”

That joke just isn’t funny anymore. All told, the National spent about a week as the Arcade Fire’s kindling in giant sheds—from where he’s sitting, Matt can see the Radio City marquee, a sight he once only enjoyed while watching TV or Woody Allen movies. Both bandmates demur and say they prefer smaller crowds, more intimate venues. Fair enough. But Alligator was a huge slow-burn hit with critics and fans, thus stoking a huge anticipatory demand for the follow-up, Boxer, out next week. Some folks—and by some folks, I mean, at the very least, me—suspect the National could be the next huge indie-arena success story, following the same exhilarating trail blazed by the Arcade Fire, the Shins, and Modest Mouse. But even superfans are somewhat shocked at how intense that anticipation has gotten: At the end of the month, the National will headline five consecutive sold-out Bowery Ballroom shows. Monday through Friday. A full work week. That’s Sufjan Stevens/Bright Eyes kinda shit. Suddenly, Springsteen doesn’t look so deluded.

This is unexpected and wonderful and slightly odd, considering Boxer itself doesn’t attempt anything terribly anthemic or orgiastic. It doesn’t act like a triumphant, overreaching breakout record—no one track leaps out at you with the vicious force of even “Mr. November.” Instead, rising above the intricate multi-guitar tapestries that made Alligator so memorable, lilting piano takes the lead here and runs throughout an album best taken all at once, in one sitting—a dangerous proposition in the single-download age. Its climactic centerpiece is the deceptively titled “Anthem,” a shy, hands-in-pockets lullaby with a lovely coda that finds Matt, in the resonant baritone that defines him the 98 percent of the time he’s not screaming at the ceiling, purring, “You know I dreamed about you/For 29 years/Before I saw you.” To put it in Springsteenian terms, this all isn’t dismal enough to be Nebraska, exactly, but it rocks no harder than, say, Tunnel of Love.

Which is fine, which is fine. It’s a grower, from a band that seems to specialize in growers. Alligator didn’t catch fire immediately; Matt notes that a few publications gave it mediocre reviews initially, only to circle around months later with much louder, much more favorable opinions. Boxer, too, may take a while to settle in. This is by design. “The songs we end up getting the most attached to when we’re making a record are the ones that grew on us,” Matt says. Aaron is even blunter: “We usually throw out the catchiest ones, because they sound like we were forcing it.”

“Often the songs that are immediate for us, that are immediate and catchy, they’re appealing because they’re familiar in some way,” Matt explains. “Those songs, after three or four listens, they lose their shine. They don’t hold our interest as much. It’s the odd ducks that stick with us.”

That oddness is doubly true of the National’s lyrics—Matt is prized for a bizarre, non sequitur sensibility that results in opening lines like “They’re gonna send us to prison for jerks.” And though Boxer song titles like “Fake Empire” and “Start a War” suggest a blatant, Bright Eyes sort of political screed, in reality Matt tries to set societal calamity in the background this time: something on the TV, something his characters wish to disconnect from and avoid. The term he’s settled on is “fuzzy-headed.”

The Radio City marquee looms just outside as he explains this, of course. Playing there—the elaborate pageantry of it all—gives him a queasy Miss Saigon sort of feeling, he jokes. Like or not, though, as subtle as the National tries to play it, a spring awakening seems to have already begun.


The National play Bowery Ballroom May 28 through June 1, sold out as hell, boweryballroom.com.

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Staking a Claim Among World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers

Ex-Ohioans the National are a Williamsburg quintet whose Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers expertly confuses clarity and fuzziness. From “Cardinal Song” on, their technique darkly lounge-lizards around. If you love someone, singer Matt Berniger begins, don’t let the person know; in fact, make that information The Last Acknowledgement. If that phrase conjures the translated title of some imaginary ’60s French film, it’s appropriate. The National’s music has a lot of Catherine Deneuve buried in it. After dispensing the advice, Berniger, whose crusty baritone recalls the great L.A. singer-songwriter David Baerwald, veers off to his chorus, which repeats the mysterious line “Don’t let her see your cardinal eyes.” Then comes a coda, unfluffy violin swirling, that nearly rewrites the song.

Elsewhere, Berniger investigates reality and illusion, women, pretty boys who’ve got to go, trophy wives whom he just knows “wander,” and “fashion coats” of inscrutable worth. The record floats a Leonard Cohen-Robert Smith vibe or two, but references fail this outfit. “Our erotic relationship was intellectually balanced between tenderness . . . and flights of fantasy,” writes Roger Vadim of the star of Barbarella in Bardot Deneuve Fonda: My Life With the Three Most Beautiful Women in the World. That’s more like it.


The National play Fez October 22.