Updated: Oct 26
With a cast of female vocalists guiding and redirecting the songs, the National’s eighth album is their largest, longest, and most daring.
On nearly every song Berninger is accompanied and sometimes silenced by a rotation of featured female vocalists who step in to offer perspective, commentary, and dissent. It’s perhaps yet another lesson internalized from Leonard Cohen, whose songs regularly called on a chorus of women as their voice of reason. And like Cohen, the National have recruited some of the best singers out, among them Lisa Hannigan, Mina Tindle, Kate Stables, Sharon Van Etten, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, whose spotlight “Dust Swirls in Strange Light” benches Berninger all together. Most revelatory of all is Gail Ann Dorsey, David Bowie’s longtime bassist and backing singer, who heralds the album’s new direction midway through opener “You Had Your Soul With You.” Her extraordinary voice of saffron arrives like a divine intervention, instantly parting a track that had previously been National-by-numbers.
The ex-Brooklynites are among the smallest handful of ’00s bands to close out the ’10s with a higher stock than what they entered with; theirs is one of the richest dynamics in indie rock. But for all they’re good at, every album has been first and foremost a litmus test on singer Matt Berninger. To enjoy the National, you’ve got to enjoy him. -Pitchfork