When Brooklyn baroque-pop group the National released Boxer in 2007, it was a left-field critical and commercial success that helped them score them an opening slot for R.E.M. Even Barack Obama used the stately piano ballad “Fake Empire” on his campaign trail the following year.
Three years later, the National are putting the finishing touches on their anticipated follow-up, logging marathon days mixing tracks at a studio in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “We’re finishing all the songs in this sort of run-down Victorian house,” says guitarist Aaron Dessner. “The mixing is really important part of the process — we tend to really edit ourselves heavily.” Dessner says the still-untitled album (due May 11th) has “a darker and meaner” vibe than previous efforts but that it is also “catchier and more of a pop record,” referring to tracks like propulsive guitar-powered rocker “Blood Buzz, Ohio” and the orchestral anthem “L.A. Cathedral.” Berninger, who punctuates National songs with his transfixing, Leonard Cohen-style baritone, also returns to screaming in a similar manner as early National rockers like “Abel.” “Our last album was more restrained and this is definitely a louder record,” says Dessner.
Still, Boxer fans will find plenty to like too, especially on tracks like “Runaway.” “It’s the most understated, spacious song on the album,” says Dessner. “It’s the only one of its kind, as far as a ballad.” Other cuts, like “Little Space,” revolve around guitar loops and double bass. “That’s a new thing in our music,” says Dessner.
For the new record, the group also rallied a crew of their musician pals to contribute vocals, including Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. “We never thought of it as getting special guest stars or anything,” says Dessner. “It’s more like our friends coming through for us.”
The National — Dessner and his brother Bryce; brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf and Berninger — are perfectionists when it comes to recording in the studio and Aaron admits that bandmates don’t always agree creatively. “We’re really critical of ourselves,” he says. “And we spend a lot of time destroying and re-recording tracks.” Still, he knows that the hard work and frustration pays off. “We’re making huge strides every day,” he says. “We’re all about making the record better.”