Band of brothers. Image: The Washington Post / Getty

The brilliant ubiquity of The National

Even when it releases a new album with little fanfare, this band—and its influence—is utterly unavoidable
October 4, 2023

In the early hours of a mid-September morning, The National released their 10th studio album. There was little of the fanfare that usually surrounds such a record; no drummed-up press coverage or radio plays; no billboard posters or social media clues. Instead, the imminent arrival of Laugh Track was announced just two days before, on stage, in the band’s hometown of Cincinnati.

It is probable that you are familiar with The National, or have at least felt the brush of their influence. Over the course of 24 years, they have become one of the most significant bands of their generation, known for the intricacy and intelligence of their music and their highly charged internal dynamics that offer a kind of creative alchemy.

They studied at Yale, Columbia and the University of Cincinnati, worked in publishing and advertising and graphic design, before giving that all up to focus on music. Today, they are the kind of band that wins Grammys and plays Democratic rallies, curates compilation albums in aid of HIV charities and provides music for the animated sitcom Bob’s Burgers and updated adaptations of Cyrano de Bergerac.

They are, at heart, a five-piece indie band, but out from this centre ripples something more unorthodox. Beyond the band, guitarist Bryce Dessner has flourished as a classical composer, with orchestral works, film and ballet scores and collaborations with everyone from Steve Reich to Philip Glass and Paul Simon. 

His brother, Aaron, has become one of the most sought-after producers in pop, working with the likes of Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, while also steering his own side project, Big Red Machine, with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.

Lead singer Matt Berninger has formed EL VY, a duo with musician Brent Knopf; while the band’s rhythm section, the brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf, have their own spin-off, LNZNDRF, with multi-instrumentalist Ben Lanz.

Follow out further and you will find them anchors of a broader musical community, one that encompasses artists such as Phoebe Bridgers, Sharon Van Etten, Rosanne Cash, Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, the London Contemporary Orchestra, among many. And as they have expanded their creative circle, they have grown evermore prolific—Laugh Track is the second album the band has released this year, after April’s First Two Pages of Frankenstein.

They have a remarkable ability to take our collective cultural temperature

Still, what makes this band special is not the scale and ambition of their work or the reach of their musical family, but something more tender. They have a remarkable ability, perhaps even a subconscious one, to take our collective cultural temperature.

Their earliest albums drew on an unruly and experimental Americana, and by the time of 2005’s Alligator they had found a way to capture the rising frustration in US society, closing the record with the half-rabid “Mr November”, a song in part inspired by John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. Two years later, Boxer opened with “Fake Empire”, portraying the nation’s disillusionment and political lethargy. Its successor, High Violet, was released the year after Obama’s election, and carries some of the same confidence and grandeur.

In 2019, they released I Am Easy to Find. At first, the record was opaque to some, but it grew to feel a discursive and inspired way for an all-male rock band to respond to the #MeToo movement. Berninger writes lyrics in the company of his wife, former New Yorker staffer Carin Besser, and so The National’s lyrics have long carried a certain duality; here their exploration of female experience became more pronounced. Berninger sat back in the songs as a host of female voices stepped forward, among them Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, Mina Tindle, Gail Ann Dorsey and Brooklyn Youth Chorus. It’s an album I think about and return to frequently, the better to sift its layers.

This year, speak to The National about Laugh Track or Frankenstein, and they will tell of the strain of pandemic distance, of the five members spread from France to Los Angeles, how the band almost broke apart, how, in that time, Berninger fell into a period of depression and writer’s block.

But they will talk, too, of how music saved them, how it carried them forward. Most particularly, they will say how this can be found in the propulsive power of Bryan Devendorf’s drums: on Frankenstein, largely pre-programmed; on Laugh Track, predominantly live.

I thought about this a lot while listening to these records. This combination of digital and analogue seems a summation of where so many of us find ourselves in this moment: still stumbling through post-pandemic recalibration, digital humans craving visceral connection, half in and out of the world. Here we go trying to find our rhythm again, here we go trying to find our joy.