"I'VE NEVER REALLY worried or thought about if I was a good singer or not," says the deep-voiced, painfully modest Matt Berninger, singer of the National (a group he rounds out with a pair of brothers: Scott and Bryan Devendorf, and Aaron and Bryce Dessner). "I don't know if Michael Stipe, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, or Leonard Cohen have good voices. I just like the way they deliver a song... I never thought, or cared much about, the quality of my voice. It's just sort of the delivery."
That being the case, Berninger can deliver a song like no other. His warm baritone is to rock music what Don Draper is to fictional ad pitchmen: masculine (yet never threatening), confident, well kept, and with a penchant for liquor's sweet kiss and all the trouble that might accompany it. Once mortified of the stage—back in his Dick Whitman days, if you will—Berninger would seek solace in pre-performance libations, a common approach for any reluctant frontman. Over time, and as the National improved, so did Berninger's self-confidence, although the sight of an open wine bottle on stage is still commonplace.
"As showmen, we are a relatively awkward group of guys, but we're starting to enjoy it more," says Berninger. "It's a combination of getting better as a band and figuring out how to relax... we're embracing it more than we did in the past, and kind of forgetting about ourselves a little bit and just getting inside the songs and the shows."
You can tell. Over the course of a handful of years, the National has gone from being just another Brooklyn band clogging the airwaves with an acceptable—yet ultimately forgettable—sound to one that's firmly entrenched at the forefront of domestic rock acts with this year's High Violet. For the National, it was a gradual ascent painstakingly built on the sort of touring regimen that's not recommended for a band deep into their 30s, with families, residing in the most demanding of cities. By full-length number three, Alligator (2005), the National reined in the promise their earliest recordings only hinted at, and its brooding follow-up, Boxer (2007), was the sort of recording that sent weak-kneed listeners reeling for weeks on end.
High Violet, meanwhile, is as close to a commercial record as the National might ever come, as the band harnesses pop melodies but restrains them before they bloom into actual pop songs. "Bloodbuzz Ohio" is a tattered love note to the band's former home of Cincinnati, capped by the somber line, "I never thought about love when I thought about home." The opening refrain of the heavy-hearted "Anyone's Ghost" ("Say you stay at home alone with the flu, find out from friends that wasn't true") is followed by similar lyrical doom, including a reference to "Manhattan valleys of the dead." High Violet continues Berninger's cohesive narrative arc of distant protagonists who reveal little, yet experience much. However, this coupling of morose words and their heavy-voiced source don't take away from the album's triumphant undertones. High Violet is the sound of the National coming to terms with the weight they wield as a band, and it's a glorious sound.
Debonair men among a sea of disheveled rocker boys who are unable to properly deposit their shirttails, the National wear their newfound success quite well. But the band is not far removed from their early struggles, something Berninger is quick to admit. "High Violet is doing exponentially better than anything we've ever done before," he explains. "We are walking on air and we are enjoying it. It's amazing. We don't take it for granted—we know how lucky we are."