The National's anthem 

Abandonment and self-loathing spark indie band's plaintive debut

In the closing chapter of Aldous Huxley's futurist freak show Brave New World, John, the enlightened outsider, retreats from civilization in a hissing fit of shame and abhorrence to an isolated mountain cabin. Mortified by his own lusts, John resigns himself to a future of self- immolation, lacerating himself with a cat-o-nines every time he suffers a pleasurable urge. So notorious is his asceticism that crowds soon flock upward from the sin-ridden city to watch him pitifully flog and castigate himself.

Three songs into the self-titled debut from The National, Matt Berninger -- himself an outsider and something of an obsessive -- spits out the lyric: "I hope you don't remember me ... I don't want to know what you're thinking/I'm looking out the window, I'm sitting here just fucking drinking." It's a naked, bracing moment, one steeped deep in regret and despair. It's the sad confession of a man too sober to forget his mistakes but too drunk to summon anything other than bilious self-loathing.

The National is full of moments like these: lovers described as nightingales, workers described as crows. More than anything else, the record conjures the image of a sick and sweating man alone at a table inside a cabin that's dark as tarpaper, half-empty bottle next to him, letter full of confessions before him.

"I don't know if I'd call it self-loathing," says Berninger, speaking from the Manhattan-based Web-design company where he works. "I think it's more like self-indulgence. A lot of these songs were written in the winter when it was cold, and I'd go home and drink and dwell on mistakes I'd made. There's a lot of pining on the record."

Berninger and the other members of The National -- brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf and Aaron Dessner -- recorded the album over a half-year's time, logging studio hours after each clocked out of their day jobs, meticulously crafting each dour melody and bitter phrase-turn. The result is a record of startling effectiveness, a merciless hybrid of plaintive American folk with the mordant gallows humor of Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker. Berninger's basement-level voice is of the same timbre as Tom Waits, and the Devendorfs' mostly acoustic arrangements are masterful in their simplicity.

"With these songs, there's a lot I got out of my system," he says. "The songwriters that have the most impact on me are the ones that expose a lot of personal things in interesting ways, in honest ways. That might be indulgent, but I'd rather take that chance and walk that line than to be too safe or too saccharine."

Berninger nurtured his pessimism as a student at St. Xavier's High School in Cincinnati, a boy's parochial institution that, as Berninger says, "had a relatively negative influence on my maturation." He met Scott Devendorf at the University of Cincinnati, and after graduation the two moved to Brooklyn with Dessner and Scott's brother, Bryan. "We didn't plan to stay very long," Berninger says, "but we've done well. In Cincinnati, it's too easy to find a homogenous niche and not really expose yourself to influences outside your social cluster."

Though Berninger denies that the record is about a specific relationship, the 12 songs function together as a sort of stinging confessional. It moves from flippant dismissal ("Put your spine in your back and your arms in your coat/Don't hold on to me when there's nothing to hold"), through sickening admission ("Once ruined, baby, you stay ruined") to the chilling, empty surrender of "29 Years," the record's culminating lament.

In that last one, Berninger's rumbling baritone, disembodied and practically phantomlike, numbly recites the lyrics, "You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you/You know I dreamed about you, I missed you for 29 years." In the background, Devendorf scrapes a pick across the metal guitar strings. The song works to terrifying effect, and the sound of the dry voice against the crackling strings is not unsettling because of what it says, but because of how it sounds: Stark, desperate and numb, it's like a man reading a letter inside a cabin that's slowly burning to the ground.

The National plays Thurs., Nov. 8, at the Echo Lounge, 551 Flat Shoals Ave. Doors open at 9 p.m. $8. Elk City and Je Suis France also perform. 404-681-3600.


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