The National Family Tree

When bands adopt an air of world-weary resignation, it can feel like such a pose. Have they really lived enough to earn the ennui so soon after high school? Can these sensitive souls really be saddled with such a heavy burden? For anyone who feels dubious about the extent of their anguish, one of Morrissey’s greatest lyrical putdowns seems pertinent (as they so often do): “You just haven’t earned it yet, baby.”

In light of that, it feels significant that the members of The National—like LCD Soundsystem and The War on Drugs, two other revered alt-rock acts with brilliant new albums in 2017—had some road on them by the time the fates smiled in their direction. Frontman Matt Berninger and the band’s two pairs of brothers—Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf—all had played in a series of little-known bands in Cincinnati through the ‘90s before eventually convening in Brooklyn in 1999. Success was anything but an overnight phenomenon for The National either, the players maintaining their various graphic-design and personal-assistant gigs for years until the 2005 release of their third album Alligator sent the band above the proverbial parapet.

All of which is to say The National do sound like they’ve earned it. And just as Berninger’s lyrics reflect on the sacrifices, compromises, regrets, and triumphs that color the experience of anyone who’s been in the world long enough to know the score, their music—whether ambitious or intimate, stately or urgent —points to a wider range of influences and elements than you’re likely to hear in musicians who’ve only just earned the right to buy their own bourbon. For this Family Tree feature, we reveal the music that helped form The National’s sound (i.e. the roots), along with songs by peers (i.e, the branches) whose artistic sensibilities also seemed to arrive fully grown. We also highlight The National’s impact on younger bands (i.e., the leaves) who are well on their way to achieving the same degree of maturity—albeit without getting prematurely tired, cynical, and dull. There is such a thing as aging gracefully, after all—hear The National’s latest album, Sleep Well Beast, for further proof.


Given Berninger’s capacity for elegant brooding, it’s hardly a surprise that masters of misery like Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave have long been his inspirations. His devotion to Tom Waits is just as evident, especially in the late-night, booze-soaked songs like Alligator’s “All the Wine.”

But there’s always been more strident elements in The National’s songs—indeed, Berninger considers The Strokes the most significant band of the oughts, and songs like the early standout “Murder Me Rachael” boast a similar live-wire energy that offsets the music’s more morose tendencies. Likewise, Bryce Dessner’s background in classical music adds further unexpected and unpredictable elements, as do the electronic textures that have become more prominent over the past decade of recordings. Like R.E.M., Radiohead, and the Arcade Fire—all of whom have been cited as inspirations, too—The National have somehow managed to push themselves in artistic terms while maintaining massive followings. That feat gets trickier all the time.


When The National emerged as one of the key American rock acts of the 2000s, they were thankfully not an outlier. In fact, they shared many of their most compelling qualities with a host of peers, many of whom had also spent the previous decade or so toiling in obscurity and waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with them. In regards to the lyrics’ more literary sensibility and the sheer scale of ambition, The National had a clear kinship with Sufjan Stevens, an artist who became a close friend and sometime collaborator. (He and Bryce Dessner are also part of the team behind the stunning Planetarium.) Okkervil River’s Will Sheff shared Berninger’s ability to thoroughly inhabit the characters in his songs. Of course, Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver emerged as a fellow inhabitant of countless long dark nights of the soul. And in the music of Grizzly Bear, Beirut, and Antlers (as well as less-celebrated faves like Crooked Fingers), there was the same fondness for the kind of creative curveballs that shatter expectations just when things threaten to become too familiar. That all makes for a new golden age of sensitive beard-wearers, this playlist’s inclusion of the mighty Sharon Van Etten notwithstanding.


The National’s ability to keep moving and tweak their own formulas makes them an exemplar as much as any single aspect of their sound does. Nevertheless, their flair for songs that balance the anthemic and the intimate is certainly a well-treasured trait for Future Islands. Moreover, the sumptuous songs of Natalie Prass evince the same eagerness to synthesize Americana, alt-rock, and orchestrally enhanced pop classicism and do it on a grand scale. Meanwhile, Berninger’s thornier side emerges in Strand of Oaks and Hiss Golden Messenger, two equally iconoclastic acts that followed in The National’s wake. Two of their strongest stylistic heirs hail from the U.K. Though Frightened Rabbit formed in Scotland in 2004, their strengths didn’t fully emerge until recent albums like 2016’s fine Painting of a Panic Attack, produced by Aaron Dessner. From Yorkshire, Grass House may herald a new wave of acts steeped in the aesthetic prerogatives and musical modes that The National has helped propagate over the past decade. They may still be young and relatively unscarred by life’s slings and arrows, but we won’t hold that against them.