Rock needs more guys like Tom Waits. Not vocally, of course—Isaac Brock proved last year with the faux-demented “This Devil’s Workday” that Waits caricatures are a dime a dozen, while too much of the talk around the wildly talented Buck 65 still lazily focuses on his Waitsian sandpaper timbre.
Instead, it’s Waits’s fullness of character that demands spiritual inheritance, his ability to create and sustain a wholly believable central player in a perpetual short story. It’s a self-deflecting trick Matthew Berninger has already perfected, and on his Brooklyn-based band the National’s new Alligator, he hardly seems there at all, except as a boozy, raffish figment of some Raymond Chandler acolyte’s imagination.
But Berninger’s charming obliqueness keeps him from sounding ridiculous singing about his “medium-sized American heart,” and likewise lets him get away with a line like “fuck me and make me a drink” in the carnival-grotesque “Karen.” The rest of the band plays straight man, setting up Berninger’s punchlines and peeling him off the floor at the end of the night.