Master crafters

The National come back from the drawing board
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  May 28, 2010

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A FOOLISH CONSISTENCY? “Each record, we think, ‘This one we’ll make all loose and scrappy,’ ” says Bryan Devendorf (second from left), “but then we just wind up doing the same thing.”

Is excitement overrated? Lately, our musical landscape has been overrun with glitzy snippets of shock and awe in an ever-escalating race to discover something completely new — or at least, something with distant-enough sources that it seems new. In a perfect world, a great moment in music would come accompanied by a sense of grace, as if it had traveled far and long to reach you here and now. In short: great art is often the product of a lot of work — and work isn’t all that exciting.

READ: "Rock the vote: Musicians with national interests," by Daniel Brockman
I’m speaking with Bryan Devendorf, drummer for the National, who come to the House of Blues on Wednesday and Thursday. His band are enjoying a brief respite after a particularly big gig: a massive benefit show at Brooklyn’s Academy of Music that was broadcast live worldwide and filmed by music-documentary legend D.A. Pennebaker. Their new High Violet (4AD) has just debuted at #3 on the Billboard album chart, and they’re about to begin a world tour that will occupy them for the better part of the next year. This is nothing new for Devendorf and company: for more than a decade, through five albums and counting, the National have plugged away relentlessly in that endless cycle of tasks that is the life of a rock band. “The whole concept of our band is that we’re a working band. And in a sense, the reward of doing the work is the work itself. That’s the way you have to keep it going.”

The music that they’ve been cranking out for the past decade reflects this dogged persistence: elegantly crafted rock that is by turns somber and expansive, patient and insistent, bouncingly buoyant when it isn’t pinned to the ground by the gravelly baritone of lead vocalist Matt Berninger. Starting out in late-’90s Cincinnati, the band sprang from the ground with a kind of somber Americana whose leaves began to turn colors when they relocated to New York. There, they played with a quiet perseverance that escalated their profile in slow shifts: first with the overwhelmingly positive reception of 2005’s Alligator, then in 2007 when rapturous acclaim marked the release of Boxer. If the hype never percolated into full-blown hysteria, it at least followed the mood and feel of National songs — most of which build slowly, a steady-yet-perky beat working as a fulcrum on which the escalating drama pivots to an eventual climax.

Devendorf is oddly desultory about the National blueprint. “The whole trajectory of our songs is almost bordering on predictable, you know? Where it’s like a slow burn, and then it peaks, and then it’s over. And you know, why not just have it peak earlier? Or maybe just not peak? I guess I have a different perspective on our music, because to me each song is like a construction project I’m working on.” He may be on to something — but if the National’s music can be considered predictable, it’s in the same way that tennis great Roger Federer just keeps nailing winning serves. “We tend to write and record each track like a jeweler, you know? Like, each song is making a fine necklace or something. Each record, we think, ‘This one we will make looser, all scrappy and rough around the edges’ — but then we just wind up doing the same thing.”

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