I avoided The National at first, I'll admit. I saw that they were a band from New York and had a 'The' in their name and expected another Strokes/Stripes/Hives garage-revival band and given how those three had grown into disappointments of the highest order I was wary of going down that road here.Even when Alligator was getting its due on plenty of year end lists back in 2005 - nothing like the reappraisal it's undergone in the meantime mind you but respectable placements on quite a few of the lists I took for gospel back then - I didn't pay it much attention. Of course if I'd known they were the American version of Tindersticks I'd have probably gotten on board a long time ago, but I made my assumptions and that was that.
So after the tongue bath that Boxer received upon it release I figured I'd take the plunge and see what all the fuss was about. While I wasn't immediately blown away by it I did have to admit that it was not at all what I'd thought it would be. Matt Beringer's vocals were like Stuart Staples by way of Kurt Wagner and the band was playing what I'd call sophisticated alternative, just oozing class and refinement without losing energy or drive. It was a far cry from the expected, but it wasn't a great album to my ears so much as a very good one.
Then, like a lot of my favorite of the decade it grew on me. Well, grew on me doesn't quite do justice to the way it slowly overtook me. Every listen brought out new joys, from the double-picked guitar line that "Racing Like a Pro" builds itself on or the subtly complex drumming on "Guest Room" or the real meaning behind Berringer's lyrics. Every listen revealed more, and the more it revealed the more I wanted it to reveal more. The more I heard, the more I wanted to hear. The album refused to stop getting better for a while, my mental decimal rating rising a couple of notches with each listen as each of the tracks revealed itself to me. The way it happened seemed almost needlessly drawn out, but as far as slow burns go there wasn't a better one this decade.
Essentially, over the course of three months The National went from a band I was happily indifferent towards to being one of my favorite bands of the decade. Matt Berringer painted such vivid pictures of a lost generation, a generation I'm on the verge of joining, wandering around like it's still freshman year, barely recognizing their peers who've moved beyond that mentality, shutting themselves off from a society they aren't made to understand, yet didn't sacrifice catchiness in favor of potency. The band themselves ride Bryan Devendorf's tight as fuck rhythms with interlocking guitar lines that never draw attention to how much complexity the whole package contains. Sure it gets a little samey towards the end, but the way the album flows is impossible for me to deny. I can still pick out highlights but the fun of Boxer is just riding it out for the full 50 minutes or so and letting it take you on it's unique little ride. The reason it' one of the best albums of the decade is because sometimes I can't even think of it in terms of its individual songs, just the cumulative effect of the whole package.
So after Boxer grew into one of my favorite releases of 2007 it only seemed right that I atone for the sin of ignoring what had become one of my favorite bands in a short period of time, y'know after actually listening to their music. I wasn't expecting anything to match the most recent outing, if only because it had had the time to fully grow on me as I've come to assume all NAtional albums require, but of the three prior releases Alligator was the only one that threatened to overtake it in my estimation. I mean, just look at some of those songs...the subtly shifting "Secret Meeting," the rousing "Lit Up" and "Abel," fucking "Mr. November" which might be the single best song the band's ever laid down, "Baby We'll Be Fine," "All the Wine," "Friend of Mine". In fact on a track per track basis it's probably stronger than Boxer.
However, therein lies the deciding factor: for all it's great songs Alligator doesn't hang together like it's follow up did. The flow of the album isn't awkward or anything, it just doesn't have the sense of cohesion that Boxer has. It's a bunch of highlights looking for a through line to put it one way; I can't get enough of the songs themselves but as an album something seems to be missing here. The question then becomes 'does it matter?' Well, yes it does. We're talking about the crème de la crème here, and without that extra cohesion Alligator comes up short, just barely. I'll probably listen to it more often and I'll sure as hell pump a few of the tracks at alarmingly frequent intervals (according to my iPod I've played "Lit Up" and "Mr November" upwards of 20 time each in the last few weeks vs. 5 plays for anything off Boxer) but it will always pale next to the follow up despite those caveats.