The somber, deep-voiced singer is one of the more idiosyncratic phenomena in rock music. There just doesn’t seem to be much of a place for them. While there have been notable exceptions, like Ian Curtis or his current-day successor, Paul Banks, in both cases, the music beneath the pipes is evocative of mood, dark and brooding. When you look at the most notable deep voices in music, the obligatory Barry White comes up, but beyond the late great soul singer, most of what’s left are gothic troubadour types: Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave (who mostly shouted in The Birthday Party if you really wanna argue), Mark Eitzel and Tindersticks vocalist Stuart Staples. Following in the great tradition of dark and mysterious baritone frontmen is Matt Berninger of The National, another great singer with a penchant for the somber. But as intriguing and sultry as his deep-throated crooning is, it’s made all the more incredible by the rest of the band, who have crafted one of the year’s best albums in Alligator.
The National’s previous effort, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, was pegged as something of an “alt-country” album, most likely for its overall somber mood and Scott Devendorf and Bryce Dessner’s intertwining fingerpicked guitar style, which occasionally had a touch of twang to it. But on Alligator, the New York fivesome find themselves at a crossroads between Interpol and Tindersticks, as only a band with a singer such as theirs could. Clearly, this isn’t a bad place to be.
As far as mood goes, The National is one of the moodiest, late night red wine and cigarettes kind of bands around. But it also so happens that they’re some of the best songwriters of late, as Alligator displays 13 emotionally draining but absolutely mesmerizing songs. With a simple snare hit, the album begins with gorgeous, twinkly guitar work by Dessner and Devendorf (whose brothers play bass and drums, respectively) and graceful piano backing. Immediately, Berninger proves his worth as a lyricist, crooning a chorus of “I’m sorry I missed you/I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain.” But on the eerie “Karen,” Berninger takes a turn for the sinister, warning his lover, “Whatever you do/listen/you better wait for me/I wouldn’t go out alone in America.”
While many of the album’s songs are peppy in the right places, the band can really rock out when they want, like in the post-punk leaning “Lit Up,” first single “Abel,” with its maniacally-shouted chorus of “my mind’s not right!” and closer “Mr. November.” The latter in particular is an emotional rollercoaster, as Berninger sings from the perspective of a desperate lover…or athlete…I’m not sure which, hysterically shouting, “I won’t fuck us over,” repeatedly. But the band also has a strong knack for playing the gentlest of ballads, like the dreamy shuffle of “Looking For Astronauts” and the folky “Daughters of the Soho Riots.” At both extremes, The National can belt out an amazing tune, all the while strengthening their identity as a group of charmingly gothic dream-rockers.
Matt Berninger’s voice is among the coolest in rock today, though he’s just the latest in a long, but limited, line of legendary frontmen. Well, legendary still could be pending on this particular singer. But with albums like Alligator under their belt, the band as a whole is bound for greatness.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.