Detail of poster for Kellar Levitation by The Strobridge Lith. Co., 1894
I'll happily admit that I'm wrong most of the time. I remember the first time I encountered the National - I saw the video for "Abel" from their 2005 album Alligator and I said to myself, "Nope. Not for me." I understand now why that particular song was not a great point of entry for me with the National, but it still amazes me how wrong I was. The National's brand of dark, melancholy indie rock is hard to pin down and might seem kind of boring at first, but to me it is as compelling as it hard to describe. Their songs bear the best signs of a particular type of collaborative writing - several musicians working together on the music and a single lyricist writing the words. The music, written by the National's two pair of brother musicians, the Dessners and the Devendorfts, is often moody and tense, with an emphasis on interesting rhythms and layers of sound. Matt Berninger's lyrics are miserable tales of substance-dependent urbanites, detailed with a loving cruelty and humor that takes a while to get used to. To me, the best part of the National is that the drama and danger is all really an act. Berninger and his friends are graphic designers and dot-com nerds pulling their vision from an idealized fantasy that is very realistic but far from real.
So the Jukebox kicked out "The Thrilling of Claire" today, a pretty obscure National b-side - originally only available on the digital version of the "Abel" single. It's not easier to find as it is included on the bonus disc of the Alligator reissue, which is a good thing. It's obvious why "The Thrilling of Claire" was relegated to obscurity at first - it's a good song that never really found a right arrangement and dynamic. But the lyric captures a lot of what makes the National interesting - the decadence and sexual ambiguity that come as part of the lifestyle of depressive young people working in the city. The words are being spoken to a girl who apparently is not Claire, the key line of the song being, "If that's what gets you off, I can't compete with the thrilling of Claire." The singer, unable to compete, expresses pity for the vain machinations and twisted sexuality on display in the lives of his dream girls. I bet the graphic designer where you work doesn't have such a rich fantasy life.
"The Thrilling of Claire" by the National