Waiting expectantly for a full and proper follow-up to Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers we happen upon Cherry Tree; a bit more than an EP in the old-fashioned sense, a bit less than an album under any definition.
It opens with "Wasp Nest", one of those songs where The National don’t appear to be doing very much at all, like the slicing cut of the knife that you don’t notice until you see the red all around. ‘Get over here I wanna kiss your skinny throat. You’re a wasp nest, you’re a wasp nest’, sings Matt Berninger in that now familiar baritone. Naturally, the drink is never far from the hand, this time it’s "a red martini in a paper cup". I’m thinking I don’t entirely trust this fellow. The music plays itself round and round with not much call for variation: repetition is often the most sinister of sounds.
The title track glances in the same direction: The National write structureless songs like no-one else can. A four-note melody from calm start to violin-shredding finish, you think it’s not going anywhere at first, just a few cryptic lyrics (“You’re sharp alright, but no-one is asking so leave it alone”), but stay too long and you’ll be sucked into its whirlpool. "About Today" follows dolefully; this one leaves the room as quietly as it entered: exit left, pursued by a violin.
"All Dolled-Up in Straps" brings more creeping unease - “You looked happy for a woman”, but “Hips like a boy’s” and “lanky white arms, nothing else moves that way, are you kidding me?”. A shadow of something lurks. Or someone: “My head plays it over and over,
Don't interrupt me”. This is where The National start to celebrate as well as embrace the darkness and the gloom.
"All the Wine" embraces and celebrates thoughts of images that might make sense when “all the wine is all for me”.
I'm a birthday candle in a circle of black girls
God is on my side 'cause I'm the child bride
I'm so sorry but the motorcade will have to go around me this time
'Cause God is on my side and I'm the child bride
The remaining two tracks are a Black Sessions version of "Murder me Rachael", which gives a hint of the power of The National as a live act, unafraid to twist and shout (and scream), and the uniquely weak, last burning embers of the campfire, ‘Reasonable Man (I Don’t Mind)’.
At the end of Cherry Tree you get the feeling that The National, having tossed ideas out and into their first album, and had an idea of what they wanted to be on their second, suddenly aren’t so sure. Or, possibly, Cherry Tree is just a temporary unease - an emotional stop-gap as well as a recording one.