Friday, March 27, 2015

A Crack in Everything: Alligator

In the previous instalment of A Crack in Everything, I shared some of my personal qualms with The Polyphonic Spree's mostly fantastic debut album. Shortly after publishing that blog post, I clicked over to Twitter and posted this:

That tweet received one response, and it came from @DannyinBelfast:

Grateful though I was for Dan's suggestion, it was a slightly problematic one. You see, A Crack in Everything is all about finding fault with practically perfect albums, and I simply don't consider Boxer to be anything close to a perfect album. It's a *good* album, sure, but it's never quite touched me in the same way as Queen of Denmark or Funeral. I like Fake Empire and I like Ada and I especially like Start a War, but these posts are nothing if not over-scrutinous, and feel that I would have found too much to complain about if I stuck my hand into the mixed bag that I consider the rest of Boxer to be.

Having said that, Cincinnati's glummest sons do have other albums, and it just so happens that I do consider one of them worthy of A Crack in Everything's high standards. I speak, obviously, of Boxer's predecessor, Alligator.

Now this is a classic album. Where Boxer and High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me merely flicker, Alligator positively roars; granted, this was the first National album I owned, and so Dan and other fans may well dismiss my preference as yet another case of firsty favey syndrome, but regardless of our differing opinions on the band's more recent work, I hope that we can all agree just how thrilling this record is.

Right, now that I've built Alligator up, let's knock it down. There are loads of things right with this album, but what's wrong with it?

Well, the number of tracks, for a start. You don't have to be superstitious to recognise that 13 is a very ugly number, and Alligator could definitely stand to be cut down to an even 12.

Which track would I suggest dropping? I'm glad you asked:

If I might liken Alligator to a beautiful stained glass window, then Baby, We'll Be Fine is the smear of mud that was left behind when someone kicked their football at it. It's just a dense, dull blob of music, with no melodic hook to speak of and no rise, fall, or meaningful progression of any kind. The album would lose absolutely nothing if this song disappeared; furthermore, it would allow us to cleanly separate Alligator into Side A (culminating in the beautiful Daughters of the Soho Riots) and Side B (kicking off with the tense, punchy Friend of Mine). For me, the album feels far better-sequenced when I skip track 6 altogether.

One thing that The National do very well indeed - especially on Alligator - is a good intro. Whether it's the  glistening guitar pattern at the start of All the Wine, herewego rumble that kicks off Lit Up, or the simple, standalone crash that heralds the beginning of Secret Meeting, the songs on this album really know how to announce themselves.

There are, however, two exceptions: both Looking for Astronauts and City Middle start with no introduction whatsoever. In both songs, Matt Berninger just starts singing straight away, and while it kind of works in City Middle, contributing to that song's general atmosphere of weirdness and displacement, it does make Looking for Astronauts stand out like a sore thumb:

My final complaint concern's Alligator's lyrical content. Berninger (if he is, in fact, the author in the band) is a very esoteric lyricist, often sounding like he's making it all up on the spot. Sometimes, this pays rich dividends - there are loads of great, hyper-quotable lines on Alligator, including:
  • "Didn't anybody tell you this river's full of lost sharks?" (Secret Meeting)
  • "You're the lowlife of the party, bad blod, bad blood for everybody" (Lit Up)
  • "You know you have a permanent piece of my medium-sized American heart" (Looking for Astronauts)
However, there are moments on this album where MB's lyrics just sound silly, ruining the cool atmosphere that everyone else is working so hard to create. Some examples:
  • "We'll run like we're awesome, totally genius" (The Geese of Beverly Road)
  • "I'm a birthday candle in a circle of black girls, God is on my side 'cause I'm the child bride (All the Wine)
  • "Our hands are covered in cake, but I swear we didn't have any" (The Geese of Beverly Road, again)
Look, Matt, I love that you're confident enough to deliver lines like these, and they're definitely not bad enough to ruin this experience for me, but c'mon. Somebody spent a lot of time arranging that lovely wind part at the beginning of The Geese - would it kill you to put a little bit of thought into what you're singing over it?

Still, I can't be too mad at the guy who wrote Abel.

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