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My Mind’s Not Right
“Secret Meeting” may be Alligator’s first song, but The National chose to introduce their brave new selves into the old indie world with the album’s exemplar, the track that stands out in my mind even though its maybe not the best song on the record, the one that I point to when I say what I’m about to say:
Alligator is The National’s best record. Boxer and High Violet are more developed, sure, more mature, but they’re also too tightly controlled, too easy, too clean. If you listen to those albums alone, you could certainly understand why, in some corners of the universe, there are people who dismiss the band as “dad rock.” I probably don’t really have to tell you that I disagree with the critique, in part because I don’t understand why the fact my father likes the National (he does, by the way) means that I should dismiss them out of hand, but I don’t want to deal with it here and it is something I’m hopefully going to have a chance to come back to; the point here is that the mere existence of Alligator should end the discussion, full stop.
The unfortunate fact is, of course, that it won’t, but if you can get a naysayer to sit down for long enough to listen to “Abel,” a mere three minutes and forty seconds, give or take depending on what version you’ve got handy, you should be able to dissuade them of their insipid critique. If anything, the song is a sloppy mess— it begins, after all, with a precise, driving drumbeat paired with a perfectly timed series of cascading guitar chords that lead into the whole band screaming “my mind’s not right” into their mics. The track practically bleeds dissonance.
Never, however, does “Abel” approach discord, not even when Matt Berninger throws his whole six foot frame into that scream, doubling over at the waist, mouth wide like a Muppet’s, the tendons in his neck ripping. Even the slop is carefully controlled, the precision of the instrumentation carrying over into the song on the whole so that even as the song’s narrator (Berninger?) seems to be losing his mind, he seems to be losing his mind in some kind of perverse order, first trying to escape it (“Abel, come on, give me the keys, man”) before it escapes him (“my mind’s gone loose inside the shell/I’m missing something, I’m missing something”).
And, of course, there’s the relevant pun, with the narrator begging Abel to give him the agency to do the things that he can’t and, and the Biblical allusion, and maybe even an oblique reference to a major American rock ‘n roller who might be an unsung influence. Those things aside, though, “Abel” is what The National is all about, the avatar of the sloppy genius that is Alligator, and if you’re looking for a way in, this is it.