The National's second album, 2003's Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers was where the band really started off in earnest, as their self-titled debut was pretty unremarkable. Within seconds of the first track, Cardinal Song, you're transported immediately into brooding, melancholic territory with Matt Berninger's voice centre stage over slowly unfolding music, as Berninger lays down his `rules of engagement': ("never tell the one you want that you do"). It drifts along pleasantly for 3 or 4 minutes, with hints of Red House Painters and American Music Club until the notes of a piano take the song to a different place entirely and a beautiful violin part takes over, darkening the song wonderfully.
The pace picks up with Slipping Husband, with a simple descending guitar part where Berninger sings with heavy regret, calling to mind the likes of Feargal McKee (Whipping Boy), yet with a `head full of attitude' as lines like "dear we better get a drink in you before you start to bore us" illustrate. The music is superb, the band play with just the right pace.
90-Mile Water Wall is gentler, with an acoustic guitar and fiddle. Berninger is particularly prominent on this album in comparison to later albums, his voice really owns many of these songs. There are some really great lyrics here: "how could your hair have the nerve to dance around like that". The first half of this album is as strong a set of songs as on any album by any band. It Never Happened has a similar feel, regret being the primary emotion as Berninger sings "we look younger than we feel and older than we are."
Things get a bit heavier and dirtier with Murder Me Rachael, underpinned by a great violin part and distorted guitars and some great, if a little creepy lyrics ("I loved her to ribbons", "tomorrow won't be pretty"). The song builds and builds to a climax with Berninger screaming his vocals towards the end. Thirsty is quieter, though no less urgent. Again there's a fairly simple, descending melody but on this, like many of the other songs it's the little touches that make the songs: a little violin here, some guitar there and more great lyrics. "Take these girly arms," Berninger sings, "and ever keep me", very resonant lines in my view.
The heaviest song is Available, which belts along with driving guitar and heavy drums. It's not like anything else in the National's song catalogue, melodically it's like Joy Division with added distortion, the verses are underpinned with some filthy guitars in the background. It's one of the best songs I've ever heard, the melody, lyrics and music combine fantastically. There's a kind of pause in the middle, where the song is almost catching its breath with Berninger spitting out in disgust the line "you... just... made yourself available." The song then kicks back into gear with even more frenzy than before, until Berninger loses it completely, screaming "WHY DID YOU DRESS ME DOWN, DRESS ME DOWN?" before eschewing lyrics altogether and just screaming blue murder. It's an utterly brilliant moment, and makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time.
The rest of the album isn't quite as strong, but it would be almost impossible to keep a run of brilliant songs like those. Suffice to say that for the first seven songs alone, this an album to put up there with The Smiths, American Music Club et al.