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.

Many of the other old songs that The National play live can be shuffled into the anthem category: “Mr. November,” “Fake Empire,” “Apartment Story,” “Terrible Love,” “Don’t Swallow The Cap,” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” For a band that’s never really had something that can be traditionally labeled a hit, these songs come the closest, finding their way into the general pop consciousness through TV syncs or satellite radio or just old-fashioned word of mouth. But largely punctuating the set were songs from their most recent effort and and even more recent songs, like the unreleased track “Light Years.” For the vast majorty of the performances, these felt like the signature moments, with the band proudly unveiling themselves as a one-guitar entity while one of the Dessner brothers would retreat to keyboards or a laptop to help with the tunes’ electronic textures.

It’s not surprising that the band has continued a subtle evolution from album to album, but what is surprising is how well the parts of the band that do stay consistent — Matt’s quick-witted, baritone delivery and the band’s meticulous and subtle approach to composition — fit so well with every direction change. And while whichever National album is their best remains a very subjective conversation, there is no doubt that every new endeavor from the band couldn’t have been made without the work that came before it, and that they are always adding to the formula without sacrificing anything that drew fans to the band in the first place. Stadium legends like U2 and R.E.M. come to mind in terms of their upward trajectory, and while The National will likely never have that kind of mainstream success, the legacy they are building feels every bit as artistically vital as those artists.

And as the cycle for Sleep Well Beast eventually winds down, maybe the best thing about The National is that the band still has room to grow and improve. Though the live show is well-calculated and emotionally affecting, it still feels like a leap in confidence in their back catalog’s status could take their concerts to another level. For a band that idolizes The Grateful Dead, it is a little surprising how much of the two nights at the Palladium mirrored each other. Certain moments in the middle of the performance are left open to play any number of old songs that change from night to night, but a solid two thirds of the set is pretty much the same at every concert.

Philip Cosores for Uproxx

This is the same rule that the vast majority of bands abide by, but it also sets artists like The Dead, Phish, Pearl Jam, Wilco, and Radiohead apart as live entities. The sheer quality and abundance of The National’s past music would allow for this, as would the fact that the band doesn’t really have songs that need to be played on a given night. If Radiohead can limit “Creep” and “Karma Police” and “Paranoid Android” to songs that sometimes-but-not-always appear, certainly The National could do the same for “Graceless” or “I Need My Girl” or the unreleased “Rylan.” The amount of people going to National shows for the first time feels very small, and for their faithful fans, pretty much their entire catalog is celebrated. Playing into that fact would take the band to the next level.

One thing that should remain a defining moment for the band, though, is how they’ve been ending their performances, with a crowd singalong of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” the closer from High Violet that finds Berninger playing conductor for the audience. It’s staggering how many in the audience know this song and the enthusiasm for which they handle the vocal duties, while the band lines up at the front of the stage for the stripped-down, farewell moment. Perhaps nothing better sums up the band: A song that was previously enjoyed in isolation now becoming a moment of community, evolving from its recorded state to represent whom the band has become.

It’s enough to believe that The National will just keep evolving forever, shunning all the naysayers who call them too safe or too boring. “I’ll explain everything to the geeks,” the audience yells while Berninger jokingly points at his bandmates, aware that at a National concert, no explanation is necessary. For those couple of hours, everyone is in on the same secret, that The National’s continual improvement defies all logic, and that they could still get even better.

Sleep Well Beast is out now via 4AD. Get it here.