Top 10 Songs of 2013: #3 – “Don’t Swallow the Cap” by The National

26 Dec

The National

In 2010 The National appeared on the Music Court’s incipient end-of-the-year countdown. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” reached the eight spot, and, three years ago on Dec. 22 I wrote the following about the song:

When the lyric, voice and instrumentation all join together to struggle with the same concept that the song represents, well, that demonstrates musical experience and intelligence, two things that The National has a lot of.

“Bloodbuzz Ohio” probably deserved a higher placement on the 2010 list. I’m making up for that now. “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” a single off of the National’s sixth studio album Trouble Will Find Me (May 17, 2013), is a perfect demonstration of the above quotation. The new album, which was recorded in New York (north of NYC), debuted at #3 on the US Billboard 200, the same spot as the band’s 2010 release High Violet. While both releases are similar in content and ratings, the new album represents an expected maturation for the band, and this musical efficacy is best displayed in “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” the #3 song on the Music Court’s 2013 list.

One of the rare negative reviews of Trouble Will Find Me stated that the music seemed emotionally dry. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, the melancholic baritone of Matt Berninger is even more saturated with driving, lachrymose rhythms and candid, painful lyrics. It is easy to be deceived, though, because it does seem that the musicians in the National are finally comfortable with who they are. Comfort does often lead to complacency, but for the National it has led to newfound puissance.

While Berninger’s distinctive baritone absorbs the vast majority of the National’s praise, it is essential to point out the two sets of brothers who lay the groove and hold down the musical fort with adroitness. Aaron and Bryce Dessner, who also produced the album, take care of the guitar and airy keyboard that provide the complement to Berninger’s somber vocal. Scott Devendorf helps drive the rhythm forward with an effective bass guitar, and his brother Bryan is responsible for the persistent drumbeat. For the first 30 seconds of “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” the band is in full force. Perhaps most impressive in the song’s inception are the effervescent keyboard sounds that are high-pitched (relatively) and alien-like. The sounds set an eldritch scene, one that Berninger snugly fits into when he opens his mouth.

“Don’t Swallow the Cap” is yet another quintessential lugubrious lyric that features such gems as “I have only two emotions, Careful fear and dead devotion” and “Don’t think anybody I know is awake.” It’s a song about loss and grieving, and Berninger’s croon glides throughout the song like a figure skater, effortlessly manipulating the thin ice. Excellent song by an excellent band.

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