Picture Zach Braff in some sepia-tinted Lone-Star State bar nursing a pint glass half empty with his tears. The National’s Cherry Tree would be playing in the background.
The National is a band of five Midwesterners with enough misgivings and fiddles to fit in easily with the alt-country fans and enough jadedness and bass rumblings for indie rockers. Matt Beringer’s gravelly warble – like that of Tom Waits – floats above his bandmates’ Silver Jews-inspired soundscapes and reveals how flawlessly these genres coalesce for the Cincinnati-born, Brooklyn-based five-piece. Most of Beringer’s lyrics in Cherry Tree, the group’s third release, revolve around regret and dejection in love, which the frontman nails with a combination of sorrow, pain, and stalker-like antics. On the funereal ballad “All Dolled Up in Straps,” Beringer describes his fixation with a supposed former lover. He asks her where she’s been after he watches someone he believes to be her, and his “head plays it over and over.” He repeats these lyrics as well as the question, “where have you been?” Unfortunately, his haunting physical presence is unique to this track.
At least on “All Dolled Up in Straps,” the National proactively participates in the band’s dispirited state, if you can call stalkers proactive. The other tracks amount more to a long-winded whine set to beautiful and expansive instrumentation. On “About Today,” Beringer circularly converses with himself: “Today, you were far away / And I, didn’t ask you why / What could I say? / I was far away / You just walked away / And I just watched you / What could I say?” He later asks, “how close am I to losing you?” when his lover has already, as he repeatedly establishes, walked away. That the track is adeptly punctuated with low and elongated violin chords and heavy keys – combined with Beringer’s overwhelming sense of denial as he depicts the egress of his lover – makes the song somewhat excruciating for the listener. Yet one can’t help but indulge in the National’s remarkably (and distressingly) composed solipsistic despondency, and, afterwards, become wholly frustrated. Unlike the band’s previous releases, most of the tracks on the album portray a softly intimate sound, but all you really want to do is scream. Like that part in Garden State when Braff’s character finally surmounts his Lithium-induced mind-numbed condition and just belts out into the literal abyss that lays below him – that’s the moment you need the National to have.
Where Braff’s character eventually emerges from his daze, the National’s members seem engrossed in and dependent upon theirs. Never has love seemed so hopeless or old lovers so deceptive (in “Wasp Nest,” Beringer describes an alleged former lover as “poison in a pretty glass”). It would seem that, as a live track, “Murder Me Rachel” would be raw with emotions, but even it never reaches a lyrical or instrumental climax necessary for complete abandon. “Cherry Tree” is the only track on the EP that comes close to this kind of pinnacle, but then it decrescendos and reverts back to its soft opening humdrum. Such is the sad yet beautiful paradox that is the National: the band can’t really come full circle when it never breaks out of it in the first place. Someone should check these guys’ meds.