Happy 15th Anniversary to The National’s second studio album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, originally released September 2, 2003.
Sometimes we music fans strike gold. We don’t just stumble upon a new favorite song or album, we unearth a portal to some fantastic world.
And so began my story with the American indie rock band, The National. One night in 2005, I sat at my desk, shopping for records at Insound when I purchased Alligator on a whim, baited by a glowing review and a fascinating cover. My initial impressions were favorable, but forgettable. Since then, I’ve learned I wasn’t alone in my reaction. Many fervent fans were initially ambivalent or even outright disliked them. But then—imperceptibly—we all succumbed to The National’s slow-creeping spell. Their thoughtful arrangements burrow into our brains with time.
I’d devoured the whole of Alligator without paying much attention to the band itself—that is, until I saw them live. Only then did I realize this wasn’t The National’s first album. The joy of stumbling upon that untapped world was unparalleled. What a glorious moment to realize their back catalog awaited my arrival!
I’m not sure if it’s true for all music fans or if I’m just extraordinarily picky, but it’s rare for me to get to that level of attraction. In our world bound by time, few bands compel deeper exploration. But I’d just discovered two full albums—and an EP!—to satisfy my newfound addiction to The National, and I was exuberant.
Released when singer and lyricist Matt Berninger was thirty-two, The National’s sophomore work Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003) unfolds like a series of intimate, dive bar conversations with regulars, randoms, friends and, most importantly, himself. It’s all too easy to imagine the witty, wine-loving writer tucked into his favorite Brooklyn haunts, pressing inky letters into cocktail napkins to cope with his thoughts.
Bluesy and boozy, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers warms you like a stiff drink, and suddenly in a daze, you, the listener, are pulled into that dark den, too. Enter “Cardinal Song,” which provides a heavyhearted look into this home away from home, where the narrator regretfully reminisces about the games he played in his relationship, never really sharing how he felt (“Never look her in the eyes / Never tell the truth / If she knows you’re paper / You know she’ll have to burn you”).
What he envisioned as an act of self-preservation actually turned out to be self-sabotage. He didn’t allow himself to let her in, so she left. In this watering hole of lost love and loneliness, the narrator tries to steady his mind. But, inner monologue blurs with external dialogue in a sort of emotional vertigo. Are the voices in his head, from strangers in the bar or memories of advice once given?
Guilt-stricken and conflicted, he sees himself acting out, masking his misery with fleeting moments of pleasure (“Jesus Christ you have confused me / Cornered, wasted, blessed and used me / Forgive me girls I am confused / Stiff and pissed and lost and loose”). He’s aware he’s unraveling, and he’s giving into the spiral.
As the title suggests and its alt-country tendencies reinforce, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers occupies a decidedly more melancholic realm than its kicky, devil-may-care successor, Alligator. But, despite being released so early in The National’s career, the album masterfully underscores the chemistry of this Cincinnati-born quintet. The influence of Peter Katis, the accomplished producer behind Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, glistens here, too.
Berninger’s tremendous gift for wordplay and poetic composition was evident beginning with their 2001 self-titled debut. Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers continues in that vein, containing many deliciously ambiguous lyrics, sung with just the right pacing and intonation. Meanwhile, the guitars of twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner and rhythm of bassist Scott Devendorf and percussionist Bryan Devendorf (also brothers) anchor the band, affording their singer the luxury of tumult.
Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers isn’t just about the failures of the heart. It’s also about the roles we’re expected to play and the responsibilities we assume as we grow older, even if we’re not entirely ready. Throughout the album, we’re given a prime barstool view into the narrator’s psyche—the contrition, longing, bitterness and angst. And, in case you’re wondering, that means yes, Berninger’s trademark screams, so essential to the spirit of Alligator, show up in the band’s early works (see “Murder Me Rachael” and “Available”) and are equally riveting.
Despite being more tempered, the first two records harbor those serotonin-triggering supernovas of shimmering sound The National do so well. They’re just not as frequent or polished. Instead, for all its torment, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers has a certain sweetness and simplicity that largely falls away in later works. “Fashion Coat,” my favorite song from Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers offers the romantic line, “Everywhere I am is / Just another thing / Without you in it,” with an earnest kind of purity. It shares a similar undercurrent with another one of my longtime National favorites, “Cold Girl Fever,” from their debut. As much as I love how The National have evolved, part of me misses what they used to do. Or maybe it’s just nostalgia—and wanting to do it all again for the first time.