Enjoyment hinges on your misery. Or not, I don’t know.
The National is pretty critically acclaimed for a band that I’m just coming to now. I’d read bits and pieces about the two albums prior to 2010’s High Violet, 2005’s Alligator and 2007’s Boxer, and both were well received by numerous online music sites. I, on the other hand, couldn’t be bothered. Let the hipsters have their precious band, I thought, I have no use for pretentious melodrama. (You’ll note that I rail against hipsters quite a bit within this column, but what is a hipster, really? And how am I not one? It’s so hypocritical of me, I know, but at least I can admit it. Can you?) Those brooding, well-dressed New Yorkers obviously had Important Issues and the Artistic Means to Share Them. (Never mind that they’re originally from Ohio. Shut up!) I didn’t even listen to a single song. Pfft. Whatever, man, next thing. I again didn’t care when High Violet was released. It was only upon a chance encounter with “Bloodbuzz Ohio” that I grudgingly admitted there might be something to The National – I heard it several times on one of Portland’s (Maine) college rock stations, and each time I grew fonder and fonder of it. And I had been pretty much been blown away upon first listen. So there you go.
And there it went, but it wasn’t the song’s fault. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” was stadium fare for the downtrodden, with huge toms and dynamic builds, washes of guitar, and Matt Berninger’s exquisite baritone wafting over every note, his chorus of “I’m on a blood buzz, yes I am, I’m on a blood buzz” perfectly capturing the thrill of nostalgia from the vantage point of an unrecognized observer hovering on the fringes of a film scene. And that’s the best way to view The National’s music – as sad, miniature films that play out in your head as songs unfold. (How perfect a visualization is “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees”?) And like much of the rest of the album, “Bloodbuzz” hints at the longing of the past, but with the bitter understanding that you can’t get back to those halcyon days, those hazily remembered places where your heart lives, no matter how hard you try to recreate every moment. Somehow life passes, and messes with you on its way, leaving you cold and unhappy, with dreams unfulfilled. Dare I be semi-flip and utter the words “midlife crisis”? (I’ll leave it there to do what it does in its own space.) Berninger, and the Dessner brothers on guitar, and the Devendorf brothers on bass and drums (yes, two sets of brothers – that’s pretty cool), just nail the mood and themes, as “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe / I never thought about love when I thought about home” pretty much sums up urban dissatisfaction. It’s pretty universally American, and we can all feel that emotional pinch.
But as I listened to the rest of the album, I wasn’t quite as deeply drawn into it, and as I completed my initial listen I was left with a sense of disappointment. At the time, I felt that “Bloodbuzz” was far and away the highlight, and the rest just sort of paled in comparison. But gang – trust me on this: if this happens to you, please give it another shot. You will be rewarded.
Most of you who have listened to The National probably started before High Violet, so I doubt that many of you fall into my particular situation. And maybe that’s a better way to go, I don’t know. What I do know is that I recently decided to give it another whirl, and I was incredibly happy with the results. Although, “happy” isn’t the best descriptor – no, I empathized, or directly related, to points of despair, malaise, and heartache, moments at which I slump my shoulders along with Berninger. I mention films above, and those that feature families wrecked by distance or infidelity or something equally glum are the kinds that High Violet brings to mind. Little Children maybe. Or The Ice Storm. American Beauty. The character studies wherein seemingly everyone makes a bad decision, compounding their situation until the whole thing and all involved are careening out of control, like a rickety minecar speeding precipitously along rusted rails above a cavernous drop. “Afraid of Everyone” bears this out in the lines “With my kid on my shoulders I try / Not to hurt anybody I like / But I don’t have the drugs to soar / I don’t have the drugs to sort it out,” at once placing equal emphasis on distance and dependence, misplacing each, and going too far in both directions. The desperately repeated coda of “You’re the voices swallowing my soul soul soul” that ends the song only takes it to a deeper level of hurt and paranoia, and the fact that there’s a “kid” involved, one who can’t develop into a well-adjusted adult if the insecurities of the parent are so prevalent, sends it over the edge.
These are mature, adult themes. The songs themselves are slow burners, and they gradually open up to reveal their depths. There isn’t a single tune in the bunch that slows the momentum, and each is a different signal that someone is struggling somewhere. The weather’s never sunny – it’s raining in New York (“Little Faith”) as well as London (“England”), and there’s so much language that points to bitterness. Take the song titles on their own: “Sorrow,” “Terrible Love,” “Afraid of Everyone,” and you can see just how deep the hurt goes. But there’s a stubbornness too, for better or for worse: “Sorrow found me when I was young” begins “Sorrow,” and drifts to “I don’t wanna get over you,” signifying there’s a tight grip on the character’s (Berninger’s?) desperation. Similarly, the chorus of “Runaway”: “I won’t be no runaway, ’cause I won’t run / But what makes you think I enjoy being led to the flood? / We got another thing coming undone,” hinting that a relationship has taken a horrible turn for the worse, and each party is content to wallow in it, but at least one recognizes that “We don’t bleed when we don’t fight.” And the canned guitar effect that opens and closes “Little Faith” is a nice touch, like a squall in a snow globe, accentuating the miniature and personal devastation of childish lines like “We’ll play nuns versus priests until somebody cries” – a masochistic enjoyment of punishment?
It’s taken me until the very end of this column before I’ve even talked about the music, but don’t think it’s overshadowed by the heaviness of the mood. In fact, it’s perfectly complementary, as it builds and retracts slowly and deliberately, taking cues from likeminded sad sacks The Wrens or The Walkmen, or even Tindersticks. But there’s a vastness to it, one that could fill a large venue, a thousand-seat theater, adorned in dark red velvet and amber lighting, representing the ideal location. A great setting for the emotional cues – and being a new dad, the first thing I thought of while listening was that I don’t want my son to make any of the same mistakes I’ve made, and then realizing it’s probably impossible to avoid. That’s why High Violet resonated so much with me. And that makes it all the more haunting. Closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” waltzes away just as we’re starting to feel the hint of redemption, like a sunray through the window as it gets smaller and smaller in your rearview mirror: “It’s all been forgiven / The swans are a-swimmin’ / I’ll explain everything to the geeks.” A cinematic downer? A glimmer of hope? Impossible to say. Make that call for yourself.
RIYL: We Are Augustines, The Wrens, The Walkmen, Doves