Though Matt Berninger, the National’s lead singer, looks like he just got out of either a bed or a bad relationship, his whiskey-thick baritone lends his voice a familial composure — a brittle rock for his band’s woozy songs to lean on. Alligator, the band’s third full-length, will remind you of its predecessor, 2003’s Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, but its tunes are airier, shimmering with touches of strings, piano and clarinet layered over meat-packing percussion and languid guitars. And it is in to this Martian milieu that Berninger’s fatherly vocals come waltzing in, waxing on about women he wants to protect, friends he wishes would call him back, and wine he wants all for himself.
Alligator‘s lushness, its sense of quiet resignation, seems a much better remedy for a quarter-life crisis than any trip to Tibet or ecstasy binge in Brighton. Berninger’s compassionately mumbled witticisms make “Karen” and “City Middle” cozy tunes for the gainfully underemployed and a welcome salve for that queasy place between student loans and mortgage payments. But even you did happen to score a decent day job, Berninger lets you know there’s no shame in begging for that pink slip. On “Baby, We’ll Be Fine” he slurs “All night I lay on my pillow and pray for my boss to stop me in the hallway” over nimble finger-picking and an oil slick of strings.
Most of Alligator brings to mind early Pete Yorn or later Arab Strap, the quintet occasionally sharpens its teeth a bit. Thankfully, these reckless moments find the National no less inventive or Berninger any less literate. “Lit Up” and “Abel” wear their torn-short glory with pride. The latter finds our man behind the mike in a rare state of ragged agitation as he screams “My mind’s not ready!” out to a tired world. But “All the Wine” is a true revelation. Luscious chiming guitar guide Berninger as he ambles down the street, “a perfect piece of ass” with a “big wet bottle in (his) fist” and “big wet rose in (his) teeth.” Somewhere between U2’s best moments and Radiohead’s most sincere ones, “All the Wine” drops the final cheery in an already potent cocktail of a record.