By Chaz Kangas
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The National's lead singer, Matt Berninger, is a baritone of the tallest order, a lurching, lanky charmer who awkwardly bumbles through live sets, yet somehow simultaneously exudes a cool, nonchalant attitude about the whole thing. Shambolic, metaphorically wart-ridden, and uncomfortably vulnerable, he's more interested in exposing weakness than projecting strength—more apt to stagger among us than tower above us.
He has done this for 10 years now, over the course of the National's five albums, the first few (starting with their self-titled 2001 debut) exploring acoustic arrangements and simple guitar hooks. Slowly, they've drifted into more grandiose orchestral-pop territory, as on this week's High Violet, their highest-profile release yet, a sharper and more immediate take on 2007's much-loved Boxer. Berninger's haunting voice is the one constant, now familiar but still inscrutable, intent on relaying some essential truth even as he's constantly obscuring it. He's sorta hard to figure out. But maybe not.
At 39, Berninger is no rookie—this is actually his second career. Most aspiring New York City rockers show up in their early 20s and immediately hit whatever stage they can find, but he arrived in 1996 as a rising star of graphic design, working for Icon Nicholson, a start-up company that designed ATM interfaces. He rose from junior designer to creative director in eight years, as the company's payroll expanded from three people to 120. "I was one of the heads of the company, flying to Stockholm for meetings with clients," he recalls in the backyard of Flatbush Farm, an organic spot in the Prospect Heights/Park Slope vortex. "And it was awesome, in a way. But the last few years were about firing friends, laying people off."
Finally, Berninger laid himself off, just prior to the tour for 2005's Alligator, the record that catapulted the quintet to a sizable audience outside New York. "I think that's part of the reason we worked so hard on this band—when we'd started, we'd done the professional thing, and did well at it," he explains. "In a way, there was a pressure off the band. We knew we could survive in a world as professional adults. I could be a grown man, I could pay my own bills. We knew we weren't going to be the Sex Pistols or the Strokes. We were never going to be these young, violent, sexy freaks that are so cool."
He'd known that for a while, actually. Born and raised in Cincinnati, Berninger describes his teen self as "really skinny with a big nose, and insecure around girls . . . But that's probably every kid's impression of themselves. What was I like? I don't know. I just know what I felt, and it was pretty dorky." Then his sister introduced him to the Smiths and Violent Femmes, freeing him to revel in his inner (and outer) dork. "I started looking at pictures of rock stars—they're some of the dorkiest. Keith Richards, Pete Townshend. Those guys aren't the quarterbacks, you know?"
He met future National bassist Scott Devendorf at the University of Cincinnati—their first band was called Nancy, with Berninger on vocals because he couldn't contribute in any other way. (He took piano lessons when he was eight: a "traumatic, horrible experience.") "I remember him being a natural leader, but without being a dick," Devendorf recalls. "He's an awkward guy, but in a funny way. Lately, he's been calling himself 'the Chevy Chase of indie rock.' He just stumbles into situations."
Watching him onstage over the years, you get that feeling. He's a bumbler, a stage drifter, sometimes lost, sometimes not. "I'm just shy of total failure," he deadpans about his live shows. "There's something awkward about what we're doing. Not by design, but it has an unpolished and borderline foolish and embarrassed exposure. Maybe that's what people relate to a little bit."
All this makes him stand out from his NYC nominal-rock-star peers. Julian Casablancas: too cool, too aloof. James Murphy: too jaded, too arch. The Grizzly Bear dudes: too soft, too gentle. Dave Longstreth: too cerebral, too academic. Karen O: too shrieky, too stylish. The Hold Steady's Craig Finn: too duuuude, too well read. Anyone in Interpol: too polished, too poised. Berninger flirts with all those qualities, but doesn't overplay any of them: a near-perfect mix of the personalities that surround us every day. The guy in your apartment building obsessed with his new new-media job. The trivia hound at the bar who's so sure Hanna-Barbera cartoons are art. The guy in film school who used to be a jock who made fun of film schools. The guy you slept with last night who hasn't called. The guy who wants you back. The guy who looks depressed and lonely as he reads novels you think you've heard of on the 2 train. The guy who says he loves you and means it; the guy who says he loves you and might not. The guy who hates himself but loves his biker rights. The guy who feels so alienated in a big city, finds the bright lights blinding and the noise deafening, but will never leave because he's too afraid to live anywhere else.