Best tunes of 2020: #29 Matt Berninger “Distant axis”

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This here is an example of one of those situations where you like a band so much, a band that can do no wrong in your eyes, that has consistently put out great album after great album, but one that you can’t fathom its talented parts making music outside of the near perfect whole. You don’t want to listen to solo material from any of its members, least of all that of its golden-voiced lead singer. You don’t want to like it. You don’t want there to be even more solo material released to take away from the possibility of another great album from the singer’s band.


Okay. Maybe it was just me.

To be honest, I know a lot of diehard fans of The National that couldn’t wait for Matt Berninger’s debut solo album and that ate it up the moment it was released. Perhaps curmudgeonly, I probably waited two or three weeks after its mid-October release date before I gave in and tracked it down on the Spotify. And though it didn’t necessarily push any of my favourite albums of the year out of the top ten that had pretty much been set by that point, I couldn’t bring myself to hate “Serpentine prison”. Scratch that, I couldn’t even bring myself to discount the album as subpar. Nope. It was actually quite lovely.

In spite of myself, I was especially enamoured by track two, pretty much from the first few seconds of impassioned guitar strumming. That intro, mired in smoky washes, smacked nostalgically of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” or James’s “Ring the bells”, but when Berninger’s fine baritone crackled in, those similarities faded right away into the ether. “Distant axis” is like a howling in the night, a call out between lost lovers, a demand for warmth and understanding. It’s a message that Berninger delivers as if out of breath, as if he had just run the length of a cold and cloudy beach in the hopes of catching a fleeting glimpse of hair or a slip of a dress. And he almost seems resigned to his fate.

“There’s a pattern to the way the world is tearin’ up
I think it’s happening to me”

With tracks this heartbreaking, I’d be hard pressed not to hope for more solo material from Matt Berninger.

But not at the expense of a new National record…

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2020 list, click here.


Vinyl love: The National “High violet”

(Vinyl Love is a series of posts that quite simply lists, describes, and displays the pieces in my growing vinyl collection. You can bet that each record was given a spin during the drafting of each corresponding post.)

Artist: The National
Album Title: High violet
Year released: 2010
Details: Limited edition, double heavyweight vinyl, violet, gatefold

The skinny: A few weeks ago, “High Violet”, the fifth album by American indie rock band, The National, turned ten years old. To celebrate, their label, 4AD, released an expanded edition anniversary edition of the album, the vinyl version including an additional LP of bonus material and all three discs pressed in a lovely, white and purple marbling. I didn’t pre-order it because I’m not at the point (yet) of buying multiple versions of the same album for my vinyl collection and besides, I’m pretty happy with the limited edition, original pressing on heavyweight, violet vinyl that I found a bunch of years ago. You may debate “High violet” that is not their best work but it built on the exposure gained by The National’s previous record, “Boxer”, and well, I think it’s some pretty fine music (two of the tracks, including the one below, appeared on my Best tunes of 2010 list). The National’s sombre and atmospheric sound is just so great on vinyl and is on full display here. In fact, I remember the first time I listened to this record after purchasing it and, I think my friend Mark will agree with me here, I thought it sounded very different from the version on CD.

Standout track: “Conversation 16”


Best albums of 2019: #2 The National “I am easy to find”

Two years ago, while counting down my best albums of 2017 list, on which The National’s seventh album, “Sleep well beast”, appeared at number three, I mentioned how at four years, it had seemed like an eternity had passed since their last record. I also talked about how the band always seemed to be pushing the boundaries of what they can be, experimenting with their sound and yet keeping things recognizably The National. And for that, they deserved all the accolades that were heaped upon “Sleep well beast”, landing it on pretty much every year end list (not just mine), and garnering it a Grammy for their efforts.

So back in March when they announced on Toronto’s indie rock radio station and then news spread that a new album was forthcoming in a few short months, it almost seemed too soon. Not that the news was unwelcome by any means, it was just surprising. And it wasn’t even your typical 10 song release, no, it was a true double album, epic, at over an hour in length. It was released in conjunction with a short, 27 minute long film with the same name, starring Alicia Vikander, the same actress that graces the album’s cover, directed by Mike Mills, and whose score is made up of pieces of variations of the songs from the album. The band has said that the album is not exactly a soundtrack for the film and that the film was not based on the album. They were made separately and yet, if you watch the film, which I avoided doing for many months, you can see the influence each had on the other. And also, listening to the album after watching it becomes quite a different experience. It is hard not to see those same images at certain songs and place with them certain meanings and moods which were not necessarily there before.

Indeed, I loved “I am easy to find” before watching the accompanying film but afterwards, it became more complete. Featuring the vocal work of a variety of established female singer/songwriters, from Gail Ann Dorsey to Kate Stables to Sharon Van Etten, throughout the album, it seemed just another experiment at first, but now shows to be even more compelling and heartbreaking. It’s as if the different artists are giving voice to this imagined woman, a ghost, duetting with Matt Berninger and sometimes even taking over, as if he just didn’t have the voice to speak for her.

“I am easy to find” is a complete album, a story, a narrative to be followed from beginning to end, even if it’s not really linear and not necessarily clear. And yet, the songs for the most part can be taken, in and of themselves. The three tunes I’ve picked for you to sample are wonderful examples of this. Enjoy.

“Quiet light”: Talk about heartbreaking. “Quiet light” is about recovering from a breakup, surviving the night when the distractions of the day aren’t there to hide away from the void. “But I’m learning to lie here in the quiet light, while I watch the sky go from black to grey, learning how not to die inside a little every time I think about you and wonder if you are awake.” The instrumentation is an interesting dichotomy of the irregular drum beat, like a hammering, broken heart, set against the gentle brushes of fingertips on the piano keys. This is all interspersed with the random sounds you hear in the middle of the night, the creaks and groans of your empty house, along with the sinking screams of an orchestra’s string section. And, at times, long time Bowie collaborator, Gail Ann Dorsey joins Berninger singing the crushing vocals like a teasing ghostly remembrance.

“Not in Kansas”: If you think this track is long at just under seven minutes, let it be known that it could’ve been even longer. According to Berninger, there are 17 further stanzas that we’re cut from the finished product. It makes me wonder what further could’ve been referenced. As it is, the meandering stream of consciousness namechecks R.E.M., The Strokes, Bob Dylan albums, The Godfather films, and Neil Armstrong. And of course, twice during this random journey, the lilting guitar and Berninger’s baritone are interrupted by the angelic choir of Kate Stables (aka This is the Kit), Lisa Hannigan, and the aforementioned, Dorsey, raining beauty on the litany of pop culture. “Not in Kansas” is a trip I’d take any day.

“Rylan”: In an interview with Pitchfork, talking about “Rylan”, Matt Berninger said this: “Often the recorded versions [of songs] sound the way someone looks when they’re ringing the doorbell to enter the party; they’re all buttoned up and stiff. They don’t really become themselves until they’ve been there a few hours and loosened up.” This is a song that was originally written almost ten years ago, during their sessions for “High violet”, but never recorded, save for YouTube videos in which it was performed live. Yet it has become a fan favourite of sorts, after years of breathing organically, and making appearances on many a set list. It appears The National finally found a home for it and man, does it sound great. Machine gun drum beats and ominous bass lines and synth washes, Kate Stables providing her ying to Berninger’s yang, and a string orchestra finale giving the sadness some uplifting support. Brilliant.

Check back next Tuesday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Chromatics “Closer to grey”
9. Elva “Winter sun”
8. The Twilight Sad “It won/t be like this all the time”
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Ghosteen”
6. The Soft Calvary “The Soft Calvary”
5. Orville Peck “Pony”
4. Ride “This is not a safe place”
3. Tallies “Tallies”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.