The National’s Continual Improvement Defies All Logic, And They Could Still Get Better

Philip Cosores for Uproxx

Uproxx’s Steven Hyden has written in depth about his own “Five-Albums Test,” which essentially states that making five excellent albums in a row elevates an artist to a sort of elite status. Few artists pass the (highly subjective) test, but it is a useful tool for discussing music, in that it equates consistency with endurance, and requires artists achieve both to attain so-called greatness. The National undoubtedly joined this club with their latest album, Sleep Well Beast, but the case of The National still doesn’t seem like a perfect fit when put up against other similarly long-lasting creative peaks.

That’s because seven LPs into their career, The National seem to still be getting better. Now, before you freak out reading that statement, let me qualify. No, I don’t personally think that Sleep Well Beast is the best The National album, nor would I ever claim that their more recent output holds a higher place of esteem in the musical canon than the album widely believed to be their classic, 2007’s Boxer. But there is more to a band’s greatness than just their most beloved album, and The National have never taken their foot off the gas in determination that they could top whatever came before. And at this, they’ve managed to completely succeed.

Philip Cosores for Uproxx

Last week, The National performed two nights at the Hollywood Palladium, a return visit to the city that frontman Matt Berninger now calls home. This came after headlining the much larger Hollywood Bowl last October, just a month after releasing their predictably acclaimed album, Sleep Well Beast. In the time between the performances, The National had thrown their own music festival, launched a streaming service, and won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album after previously losing in the same category for their 2013 album, Trouble Will Find Me. Even in a festival landscape that has largely moved away from rock and roll music, The National ascended to some of their best placement ever at fests like Lollapalooza and the upcoming Austin City Limits. And though they still don’t have a No. 1 album yet in their career, Beast did open at a personal best for the band, No. 2.

These achievements do not define the band, but they are important notes when considering both how the public views them and how they might view themselves. For me, a thirty-something indie rock fan that felt like a whole world was opening to me with the rise of Pitchfork’s influence in the aughts, nothing will ever touch the 2005 effort Alligator and the aforementioned Boxer. Those albums shone so brightly for me that it took years after 2010’s High Violet for me to come to terms with the band’s star turn, to realize that my reaction to new National albums was less a reflection on their quality and more just the result of the fact that I was getting older and clinging tightly to the albums that I associated with my own youth. For me, anything would be a disappointment after Boxer, even if it turned out that High Violet was brilliant in its own right.

But with the benefit of a longer timeline, it’s easier to see The National’s progression for what it is, and that they are currently on a five-album run where each great effort builds on the last. Over two nights at the Palladium, that truth felt underscored. The farthest back the band would reach was to their pre-Alligator EP, Cherry Tree, with a pair of songs on Thursday night that showed how the band has reimagined their own recordings (“About Today” leaps off the stage in a live version that the record only hints at) and how they’ve outgrown them (“Wasp Nest” feels lovely but minor when up against their back catalog).

Philip Cosores for Uproxx

But for the most part, The National’s live show is representing that five-album run, performed with the clear-eyed resolve that different eras of the band will mean different things for different people. A mid-set jaunt through Alligator‘s “The Geese Of Beverly Road” on night two felt like a nod to the longterm faithful, performing what has long been considered a deep-cut favorite for a good portion of fans who very-well might not be familiar with it. The same could have been said for night one’s run through Boxer‘s “Green Gloves,” a rarely played ballad that hinges on Berninger’s somber, elegant melody. These were not moments where the band could wow with gorgeous pastel lights and theatrical, uphill arrangements; these were showcases for songwriting as the backbone of the band, which has always been a defining trait over the years, even as they get better at impressing in other ways.