If the Brooklyn-based National’s wounded American rock sounds a lot like Cleveland’s Cobra Verde’s — only twice as pent-up with danger — that might be because they too originally hail from strip-mall Ohio suburbia. Or maybe it’s because, like CV’s John Petkovich, the National’s Matt Berninger sings as if he’d spent the evening drinking with Greg Dulli and has just decided to let the bar in on every secret he’s kept since he was 17.
Either way, it translates into a self-assured, well-written debut from a band who get just about everything right. The National understand that the best rock is built on tension carved from contradictory impulses: simplicity and sophistication; decadence and decorum; primal urge and cerebral reflection. The emotional turmoil at the core of "Cold Girl Fever" is impeccably dressed in an understated arrangement of guitar and synth. On "Bitters & Absolut," a cocktail-lounge piano underpins the dissipated clarity of Berninger’s Bryan Ferry–esque croon. The wasted shamble of "Theory of the Crows" drips venom in the best Grifters tradition.
The centerpiece is the gorgeously melancholy "The Perfect Song," which lives up to its title. "You wanted me to take you home/You said you’d rather be alone/I never thought of that," Berninger muses with haunted, half-soused affection for a former lover. "The car was warm and we had wine/But I couldn’t find the perfect song." He should give himself a little more credit.