With the first of two shows tonight back at the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House, where they played in 2014, Wind Back Wednesday skips back a decade to a chat with Matt Berninger about grown-ups making music for grown-ups.
As their most recent album, last year’s Sleep Well Beast, showed, it never gets easier being adults.
PUTTING THE WAYS OF CHILDHOOD BEHIND THEM
Watching the Brooklyn-based band the National - two sets of brothers and their best friend - on David Letterman's show what stood out wasn't the darkly attractive performance but that Letterman held up a vinyl version of the National's newest album, Boxer, to the camera.
To me the National sound like a band made for vinyl, more so than CD. Maybe it's the late night ambience of Boxer - more subdued, more internal than their earlier work but still inhabiting the realms of Tindersticks, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave.
Maybe it's the feeling of a well tailored crooner singing in a kind of low-lit bar where lonely people order martinis not cosmopolitans, smoke unfiltered cigarettes and drive home in the rain.
"When we make records we make them thinking of it being a 45 minute experience and we're conscious of how songs are going to relate to each other," says singer and only non-brother Matt Berninger. "We don't think much about how people are getting get the package, we don't worry too much about the medium, but we want to make sure for us that we're making something that feels good.
“With this record we spent a lot of time getting the sound. It sounds different to our records before, it sounds like there is something, whatever you can call warm, not as crispy as our other records."
Berninger has described this album as maybe coming from a happier place, or at least a less tortured place, dealing less with love lost and more with love found and what happens afterwards.
"There's not the kind of bitterness of things falling apart. Boxer is more about trying to describe how to make things work well," he says now. "I think I would describe it as less desperate. There is an attempt in Boxer to have things quiet down and settle down, close the doors and try to hold onto the things that are important, clear out all the useless stuff and get to some place of comfort.
“That's a lot of the personality of this record which is different from our earlier records."
As Nick Cave pointed out a year or two ago, it is rare in pop music to see songs written about what you do as an adult living with another adult. It is easy to write the I want someone song, and it's easier to write the I hate someone song, but the difficult thing as a grown-up is living in between those extremes and the difficult thing for a songwriter is writing about the day-to-day mechanics in reality of the two humans living between those extremes.
"Nick Cave is somebody who does write about the weird details of being with somebody and the odd, sometimes beautiful but also sometimes boring moments, the less colourful moments of relationships," agrees Berninger.
"I don't know if it's harder but it doesn't happen that much. I want more songs about, you know, having kids and trying to figure out how to be a father. A high school kid would connect with that you know, as much as they would songs about drugs or whatever. These are the real things.
“I don't have any kids but that idea of responsibility and how you balance your adolescent dreams with paying the rent, they are as interesting as any songs about hitting the road or motorcycles. There's a lot of untapped territory. People say everything has been written about but I don't believe that at all."
I really like, in that context, the line in Mistaken For Strangers, on Boxer, about "another un-innocent, elegant fall into the un-magnificent lives of adults", which is how middle-aged middle-class, middle emotional lives are seen usually in art.
"Well, the funny thing is a huge myth about growing up is that when you grow up things become clearer, become easier, more settled. I do know how much of that is true. I do think adolescence, high school is probably one of the most difficult periods of most people's lives but turning 30, 35 or 40, they are all phases of adolescence, it is the types of obsessions which shift.
"I do feel a little more stable than I was when I was at high school, I have a better sense of who I am but only slightly."
Well, Leonard Cohen still writes about the complexities of sharing your life with someone and if anyone was to have figured it out by now it would be him.
"And then he goes off and his answer is to get complete solitude for a while, up on a mountain," Berninger chuckles. "I don't think it ever gets easy."
The National play the Sydney Opera House February 21/22; The Riverstage, Brisbane, February 27; Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, March 1