I don’t get the band The National

※ Some people like The National. Others do not. If The National gives you joy, excellent! Stop reading here. Go do good in the world.

I’ve been listening to The National (TN) for a couple of weeks. They are headlining the Moon River festival Saturday night here in Chattanooga. Many of the acts I don’t know well, so wanted to boost my familiarity. Most of what I’ve heard I can get behind, but sadly I don’t get The National.

Somehow they never hit my radar until the Pandemic. I’m into music. I like artists that seem to be associated with TN. TN gets categorized into the “dad rock” category, presumably my wheelhouse. And yet, they never did, as I said, hit my radar. I often assume acts I don’t know hit it big in the U.S. when I was working and living overseas. It was pointed out to me that TN’s peak was well before my foreign travels began in earnest.

I’m sure I heard them as I was out and about in the world. I’m fairly certain that, when I did, I wrote each song off as coming from Crash Test Dummies (“Oh, isn’t it nice those guys are still going.”) or Coldplay (“Oh, isn’t it nice those guys are still going.”). If I heard the band’s name I’m sure I thought it was something about the nightly CBC news show hosted by Peter Mansbridge. Actually, I know I thought that at least a few times in retrospect.

Here I was these last few weeks, giving TN concerted attention. I started with asking Apple Music to play TN. Presumably, Apple Music starts with the biggest hit and goes form there. I struggled to differentiate one song from the next. I went to Reddit to see what r/TheNational had to say for newbies. The answers all boiled down to the albums Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet with other albums as the forth. Maybe they’re an album band and I need to disregard the singles, I thought.

I made it through most of Alligator, but fast forwarded through a lot of songs. Boxer wasn’t much better, but it was better. The lead song, “Fake Empire”, musically works but the lyrics and singing are bland. I got a few tracks into High Violet and gave up.

It occurred to me that maybe TN needs to be appreciated without looking at the lyrics, like early R.E.M. It helps in that the lyrics are mostly … not my taste. They’re like something Dave Matthews would write and then discard.

But the singer, Matt Berninger, seems to only have one vocal gear – dragging his baritone across the equivalent of a shopping mall parking lot. There is no change between songs and between albums. Mr. Berninger always offers the same static performance, eating the microphone while competing with the bass guitar.

I thought a comparison with the previously mentioned Coldplay or Crash Test Dummies, or Bauhaus, or Wilco, or Joy Division, or someone else would help me figure this band out. They don’t. Based on my cursory glance, the members of TN seem to be decent people who collaborate with others and help aspiring artists get noticed. I hope that’s true and wish TN all the best, not that they need my good wishes.

They’re not my jam. And that is OK. I wish I could give my pass to someone who would appreciate the show, but sadly the festival organizers forbid such things … and I want back in for Sunday.