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Should have been amazing...
on 23 March 2015
...But. After an incredible and occasionally jaw-dropping output over the past decade or so, it feels to me that The National have stalled a little on this record, which is a huge shame. Putting it simply, singer Matt Berninger's usually profoundly observational lyrics get lost and under-used in the first few songs due to the foggy and muddy production of this record. Likewise the inventive and dizzying drum patterns as played by Bryan Devendorf. The first two tracks rely on a wonky time signature that, after five or so listens, becomes possible to follow, but then you realise it's wonky for the sake of making this record sound different to previous National releases. It kinda hints at an absence of ideas, which is a shame. However, midway through the album things start to pick up, and we feel like we're back in National-land - misery, isolation, needing - against a musical background of frenetic minor key guitars and psychotic, flailing drums, and then it dips away again, to beige nothingness. Until - 'Fireproof' comes on, and then you're transported back into the sad world of Matt's observational mind, where his hopefulness is quashed by minimal acoustic guitars and hidden violin, like the good old National we know and love.
But then in comes 'I Need My Girl' and we're in 'Cheery Tree'-era National - tragic, hopeless, but desperate, with beautiful delicate picked guitars and eerie synth, and minimal boomy floor tom drums. Not since The Cure's Robert Smith has a singer declared such fading uselesseness as Matt B in this song.
My main criticism of this album - and please bear in mind it's not an angry criticism - is that it's the sound of a band at the absolute peak of their global career, bigger than Arcade Fire, but under pressure to put out an album to fill a gap after their last album, when - if given another year - they might have produced something much more outstanding.
I love The National, and have for many years, but like many relationships it's hit a grey patch and I feel slightly cheated, like they're not paying full attention to my needs and are just giving me a hug because they feel like they should. Sadly, the hug doesn't feel sincere and that, ultimately, is what this album feels like.