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The National - Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers

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Artist: The National

Album: Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers

Label: Brassland

Review date: Nov. 12, 2003

For its second album, the National decided to devote an entire song cycle to the shopworn American themes of booze and heartbreak. This sort of songwriting can quickly grow tiresome, and solicits the sagacity of the Cossack in Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, a reminder for the lovelorn that they’re actually lucky, insofar as their apparent ignorance of the many other ways in which the world can break their heart.

It’s not the National’s fault that thousands of songs on the same subject have already been heard and absorbed by the music-listening public. At any rate we all operate under the assumption that our personal devastation is worse than anyone else’s, and so the ranks of songwriters moaning about romantic cruelty are not likely to shrink during my lifetime, regardless of the number of times some preternaturally wizened critic throws out accusations of “bedwetting.” Perhaps there’s even a musical equivalent to Robert McKee working up a seminar on writing pop songs, reflecting on how heartbreak is a storytelling form necessary for the medium, and searching through Aristotle’s Poetics for support.

So we can probably give the National a pass on the concept. Indeed, they ought to be commended for the album’s title, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, which is both a self-effacing acknowledgement that, yeah, this is probably a little overdone, and a warning to potential listeners; there are a number of bands that are neither as self-aware nor as forthright. And besides, this sort of thing can sometimes be fun. We would not keep listening unless, on some level above all of the tears and recrimination, the whole thing wasn’t a pleasure, presuming scant attention is paid to the actual lyrics.

The National count on this response from time-to-time. “It Never Happened” sounds like a sing-along (the chorus even swells with voices to prompt this response) and “Fashion Coat” could get everyone in the bar going, mid-tempo style. Like the best material on Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, these songs are written as a particularly cosmopolitan form of alt-country: the Clogs’ Padma Newsome brings in some mournful, but decidedly polished string orchestrations, and the slide guitar is a flashy effect (well, as flashy as the slide guitar can be) on a couple of songs. “90-Mile Water Wall,” isn’t merely the album’s best song – it’s also inspirational. Bringing together front-porch guitar with conservatory violin, it’s a perfect example of how a band can draw on roots music without sounding derivative or affected; it’s a long-awaited détente between the country and the city. “Available”, bereft of guest musicians, uses Matt Berninger’s brooding voice to great effect, the drums and guitars stomping around and briefly trying to hold together the song’s polarities of swagger and self-hatred until Berninger, sick of it all, gives up and starts screaming. While the song lacks any special flourishes, its directness is impressive.

Too bad the same cannot be said of the entire album. Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers’ multiple narrators attempt to cover too much lyrical ground, as though each voice was assigned a distinct musical style. Sometimes this works, like on the ever so slightly electronica-tinged “Patterns of Fairytales”, but most of the time it results in unsuccessful, theoretically unsettling moments of post-punk. “Slipping Husband” goes from being a fairy enjoyable and straightforward rock song into an unnecessary cutting contest, with Berninger hollering one of his weakest lyrics, “dear we’d better get a drink in you before you start to bore us.” Maybe the guitar fragments and drawn-out soundscapes are the fault of the production team (which included Peter Katis, Interpol’s producer) or maybe something is floating around the ether in Brooklyn, the National’s base of operations. At any rate, an entropic song like “Murder Me Rachael” does not sound particularly genuine or animated, and it suffers in comparison to the rest of the album.

The National has roots both in Brooklyn and in the Midwest – all five members are from Cincinnati. While it’s easy to read too much into a band’s hometown, the National seems all too willing to play on their status as heartland interlopers, either showing up supposed big city refinement (best lyric: “I’m not stupid, I swear / I read the foreign papers to understand my nation”) or merging the best parts of it with homespun elements. To the extent that it falls prey to unnecessary pseudo-sophistication, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers comes off weak; to the extent that it maintains its own musical niche within the shattered-lover trope, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers makes the shopworn surprisingly compelling.

By Tom Zimpleman

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