Whenever writing wandering diatribes about a band's significance in my life, I often get lost during the way, need a life preserver from the audience to allow myself to get rescued from the ultimate belief that music has a way of sucking us into that wormhole into the alternate universe, aka “The Flipside”.
This trip to the Flipside is to discuss the National, a band that I believe is offering that same mixture of ‘Lyrics’ and ‘Songwriting’ that is more than just putting music onto an album and blares it from the top of iTunes. Instead it helps write the story of your life.
And after having a Foreigner-off with my wife as we lay in bed one night, I realize that I am not the most knowledgeable about lyrics. This might be due to the fact that I probably get lost more in the music and do not play as close of an attention to what the lyrics are, there are times after listening to the music ad nauseum that I start to begin the breakdown of the music. For me it’ s always been about images and sights. I never liked watching other peoples “Images” aka MTV instead preferred the idea of looking out at the world encased in my ear buds and walking at a brisk pace examining it while I think of the meaning behind while I hear Matt Beringer say “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders”.
The National have reached that level of music-listening where I can honestly say that I have had plenty moments where I have begun to question more specifically what the music might mean to me.
The National offer the 80’s version of R.E.M., they offer up the politics of U2 without the blatant flag waving of Bono. They offer up the folklore of Jeff Tweedy of Wilco without being too riddled with band members getting kicked out every couple years. They offer the intimacy of Coldplay without being Chris Martin-annoying. While they borrow from several of those formulas and then some they are their own unique presence. They keep the egos in the recording studio and not on the live stage. They subconsciously take over your music-listening without really even trying until one day you realize, “Oh Shit, I have been listening to this band quite a bit!”
“And so and now I'm sorry I missed you, I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain” – The National
This phrase is so very simple and yet provides a hokey eloquence at the same time. Great lyricists invoke not just the idea of providing a phrase or words but invoking something more on the listener. And while if you are reading this phrase, what do you feel?
I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain
I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain
I guess for me that secret meeting within the ‘Basement of my Brain’ would be much different than your own, most likely having a hefty stack of CDs that are unsorted, a couple of skin magazines and some old Horror DVDs with a couple Baseball posters hung for posterity. Point is that we would all have that space that we can go to where we can throw all the useless/useful junk in our lives. Yet the way the phrase is described, “And so and now I’m sorry I missed you . . . .” i.e. please excuse my bad behavior while I stare off into space and I truly have one of these true “Gaping” stares. My basement not only has plenty of clutter but a crawlspace and this awful sulfuric rotten egg smell.
While the song’s protagonist might relay a certain level of discomfort in public “I think this place is full of spies,” my own feelings on the matter is that the listener does not really need to take this line blatantly because at the same time, it’s a level of a friend/lover also hiding or shielding the protagonist: I know you put in the hours to keep me in sunglasses.
It is essentially a song about awkwardness and being that it’s a nice pop song on top of this, for those of us that sometimes feel as if we are from the Island of Misfit Toys, you can understand our like for said song.
Lyrics have a way of sometimes feeling corny or uneasy but the opening track to The National’s ‘Alligator’ is drives the idea of how to bring powerful lyrics and a rock sound that sounds fresh rather than just the next 2 bit rock band.
They are also the first band in my eyes since Wilco to truly challenge the R.E.M. construct for writing albums rather than singles; writing songs that challenge and engage the listener within the pop construct. While bands such as Radiohead provide a much more inventive music backdrop, the National’s sound feels very familiar without being corny.
And while Thom Yorke has some clever phrases, they are not the types of phrases that stick with you such as Beringer’s in the same manner that Stipe’s riddled lyrics from Murmur often were a couple of words and a cloud of dust.
I have often spoke of my love for R.E.M. and one of the things that Matt Beringer does in the above is invoking the listener, in this case to understand, uniquely, this endeavor of burying themselves in their own thoughts. While the listener is essentially trying to find out what Beringer is referencing, the opposite happens whereby I am more trying to figure out what I am taking from the song.
How am I feeling about it? What awkwardness do I portray or what makes me feel like the place is full of spies (paranoid).
SO FAR AROUND THE BEND
The first time I listened to The National, I felt it was solid but not spectacular, i.e. I was not blown away and I have a feeling there were other bands that were taking my time. Of course this was my similar response to listening to R.E.M.’s ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’ back in the 80s. It was an album that I took phrases “Amber Waves of Gain”, “Maybe these maps and legends been misunderstood”, “Take this nickel make a dime” or “When you meet a stranger look at their shoes”.
Of course, anyone that listens to music should understand that our music tastes often change. Scan through your music from 1992 and ask yourself how many of those albums are still being played at regular intervals. What records of those have you fallen out of love with, and what others have gained significance since that time?
For me the National were one of those bands that made the lists of many fans of music. Year-end, best of, what are you listening to in the car, etc. Often repetitive, their name showed up more than a handful of times that I had to finally go out of my way to find out what all the fuss was about. Their success in my eyes snuck up on me a little bit until I realized one day that they were a true talent.
On the surface they might not look like much but woven within the constructs of a pop song it provides clarity to the listener that gives a line like that power. Rock music is the sum of all it’s parts, rhythm, melody and lyrics that truly give something much more than just a passing lyric to remember.
So while it would be clever to appreciate Matt Beringer the lead singer of the National solely for the songs, we cannot forget the twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitar and brothers Bryan and Scott Devenorf, who play Drums and Bass respectively. Lyrics, to be honest with you, really mean shit without some true genius musicianship.
And so you can understand the connection between these great bands and also understand Michael Stipe’s enthusiasm for wanting them to tour with R.E.M. on their ‘Accelerate’ tour.
When he took Mike Mills to see the band live, he was equally impressed.
"The National are real," he says. "I first saw them in London a few years ago, and they reminded me of REM in our earlier days. We all felt that they would be a good match-up for us on tour, and we were right”
THE GREAT WHITE HOPE
Matt Beringer’s lyrical stylings were not about weaving stories but weaving subconscious ideas and thoughts, which often made me, ponder or ask additional questions while listening to them.
As I moved on through ‘Alligator’, other songs made their way to the forefront. “Looking for Astronauts” paints two different pictures. And while the song builds on these two ideas “Something to cry for and something to hunt” but weaves this premise with lines like “you know you have a permanent place of this medium-sized American heart”.
As I moved on, I found myself going back to ‘Alligator’ over and over again and could consider it one of the albums over the last 5 years that is played pretty constantly. Of course there is one song that took on a different meaning several years after it’s release and that was “Mr. November”, which was a song that the band dedicated to Barack Obama. “I’m The Great White Hope” . . .
One of my first rules about the National is that they are a minimum 10 listen band and that again might be pushing it. I think that maybe a minimum 25-listen band would be more apt. This is not that the National is boring, but like R.E.M.’s early music they weave a fabric that is not meant for instant delights but long-term success.
Their follow-up album “Boxer” features just as many delights. ‘Fake Empire’ provides the backdrop that we have been looking at America through rose-colored glasses.
“We’re half awake in a Fake Empire,” suggests the very idea that America is a bit of a mirage, an idea that it has never been comfortable with. But it’s not just the idea of the song but the way that Beringer sings it. He has this almost monotone low voice, which is not belting out this phrase, instead almost singing the lyrics under his voice. Clever.
“Green Gloves” provides an eerie feeling of stalking:
Get inside their clothes
with my green gloves
watch their videos, in their chairs.
Get inside their beds
with my green gloves
The careful dissection of the protagonist’s friends but still idea of staying at a distance careful to mention that the examination of their life is wearing gloves. I am going to get inside their beds, watch their videos, in their chairs. In some respects it also plays itself off as story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, other than the fact that Goldilocks is completely ignorant of the Three Bears, the protagonist plays the opposite role of being concerned but also concerned about getting too close.
Slow Show: ‘you know I dreamed about you. For 29 years, before I saw you.’ In standard logic would eliminate any fans under 30 from being a fan but at the same time provides the backdrop of an unexpected love song. Or maybe it’s a song that the younger generation aspires to be, ala someone that just spends their life dreaming.
The growth of The National is based partly on the fact they have had ample time to create their sound. While I do appreciate their earlier albums their self-titled debut in 2001 and ‘Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers’ in 2003 their last two full-length releases (including their not yet released ‘High Violet’ are clearly their strength.)
Beyond their albums is their work on side-projects. Aaron and Bryce Dessner produced the Charity album ‘Dark Was the Night’ which featured a who’s who of indie rock performers from David Byrne, Yo La Tengo and Grizzly Bear among others.
Their newest release ‘High Violet’ has been on my headphones whenever I have an opportunity to listen to them and while I believe that I have not had the approved 25 listen count, I feel this album surrounds their talents over the past couple albums as it does not try to stray and give you something that is not part of their carefully crafted formula.
“It’s a terrible love and I am walking with Spiders”.
The opening song ‘Terrible Love’ creates that ultimate phrase that sets the tone for the entire album. Whereas Beringer has touched on topics of relationships before, I believe as a whole this album is his most intimate personal relationship album to date. However, intimacy is not necessarily trying to evoke the “Feelgood Album of the Year”.
The dark brooding portrait they paint with phrases “I was afraid I’d eat your brains, cause I am evil” does not paint a happy picture. What sets this apart from a constant dreadful release is that the layered melodies paint a beautiful landscape amongst the forlorn meanings.
When I walk the streets of Chicago, the White City, there is always that mixture of unbridled enthusiasm mixed with a sense of sadness. The buildings and people add layers upon layers of melody, the guitar chords bouncing off the buildings, the streetlights beating down on me like drums and the voices off in an alley amongst some trash. Amongst the eloquence that is built on this city of dreams there are plenty of fears and hopelessness as well.
But what do I know? When you have a moment within the basement of your brain to stare at a blank screen and explore the nuances of the National I implore you to do so.