Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Alligator', the 2005 album from The National.
“I haven’t even begun to peak. And when I do peak, you’ll know. Because I’m gonna peak so hard that everybody in Philadelphia’s gonna feel it.”
So says Dennis Reynolds on TV series 'It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia', after his sister Dee argues that he peaked in high school.
Maybe that's how Matt Berninger and Co were feeling pre-'Alligator'. Perhaps they predicted their stratospheric rise from Brooklyn's indie darlings to selling out stadiums worldwide – a reptile crawling out of the sewers started it all.
'Alligator' contains the emotional output that set up the LPs that followed it. Start to finish, 'Alligator' boils over – hot, angry and frantic, concluding neatly (for now) with the slow stew that is 'Trouble Will Find Me'.
Berninger has a knack for capturing the essence of mental anguish with his lyrics. He confides in the listener about his paranoia on Secret Meeting, singing “this place is full of spies ... I think they're on to me,” serenely over rolling layered drums. It's hard to tell whether it's all a ruse – it's only for the yelping backing vocals that accompany the outro that you realise he's probably not joking.
It's this Jekyll and Hyde call-and-response that makes Berninger the enviable frontman he is. He goes from deadpan gloating on All The Wine - “I'm put together beautifully ... I'm a perfect piece of ass/I'm a festival/I'm a parade” - to sarcastic chiding on Secret Meeting, “Didn't anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?”
Karen is the result of this signature emotive writing style corresponding with the composition of the song. A simple, albeit unusual chord progression signals Berningers seemingly unshakeable swagger collapsing under his crippling need for the semi-fictional character – a sentiment echoed on bonus track The Thrilling Of Claire.
It is also important to note that, perhaps, without Karen, there would be no Ada laughing through the wall on 'Boxer', no Jennifer on 'Trouble Will Find Me'.
Closing track Mr. November was written about former presidential hopeful John Kerry's candicacy. Its lyrics would later appear on merchandise sold in support of Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
Daughters Of The Soho Riots' low sweeping drums encompass the sweet strings of Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Looking For Astronauts' melodies are the perfect accompaniment to Berninger's croon: “You know you have a permanent piece of my medium-sized American heart.”
Marriage and fatherhood have mellowed out Berninger, resulting in less crude song-writing, and, one would imagine, significantly less drinking. The unkempt, depressed, tipsy womanising phase of The National retreated to the sewers with this album.
'Alligator' found itself perched atop many 'Best Of 2005' lists, and continues to be regarded as one of the standout indie rock albums of the previous decade. Without pretention, without fanfare, it presents itself as a double-threat on several occasions. Understated, yet capable of challenging emotions; delivering fiery anthems alongside sing-along slow-sets, it's unlikely we'll ever see The National release an album this raw ever again.