One thing I can say about The National with absolute certainty is that their lyrics are better than everyone else’s. For example:
From “All the Wine”: I’m a perfect piece of ass.
From “Mr. November”: I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.
From “Friend of Mine”: I’ve got two sets of headphones, I miss you like hell.
From “City Middle”: I have weird memories of you, pissing in a sink I think? I have weird memories.
And it’s not just the cleverness of the lines, it’s the deadpan delivery, the agonizing boredom, the over-the-top audacity. Like in “Conversation 16” when Matt Berninger says, “I’m the best slow dancer in the universe.”
The universe. He says he’s the best slow dancer in the universe.
Their sarcastic, cold-hearted swagger is what makes The National not only one of the most depressing bands I listen to, but also one of the funniest. And I don’t just mean intellectually funny, academically funny; I mean laugh-out-loud, hahaha funny. I mean hilarious.
I like that. I like that a band can make me laugh, can make fun of themselves while, at the same time, massaging their own egos to the point of total fucking absurdity.
Because maybe total fucking absurdity is exactly their point: the absurdity of middle-class boredom, the absurdity of masculinity, the absurdity, even, of themselves.
I am developing my own theory of art, a way of defining it against, say, entertainment or advertising or propaganda. And my theory goes something like this: Art never makes the world simpler, art always makes the world more complex.
The National, I think, makes a mess.
I sometimes wonder if The National works solely because of Matt Berninger’s voice—his growling, grumbling baritone. It’s sometimes not clear whether he’s singing songs or just mumbling thoughts to himself. When he whispers, “Don’t interrupt me” on “Dolled Up in Straps,” he sounds like a man capable of all the terrible things men are capable of.
But masculinity here isn’t something to be proud of. It’s a burden, another weight on The National’s shoulders, another expectation they don’t know how to fulfill, another obstacle in the way of being good. When Berninger talks about his penis, he’s bored with it, frustrated: “Can I get a minute and not be nervous? And not thinking of my dick?”
Or, from “Reasonable Man”:
“I don’t mind losing a girl to herself;
A quiet love is better than none.
And I don’t mind losing a friend to a friend
If only to be a reasonable man.”
There is this moment on Boxer, halfway through the album, during the last 90 seconds of “Slow Show,” when Berninger keeps repeating: “You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you.” It’s this brief respite from the cynicism, this rare moment of sentimentality. When I listen to it the air gets knocked out of my chest, it’s so sincere.
I would argue it’s only good men who worry about being good men, only decent people who worry about being decent people. Maybe The National’s exaggerated cynicism is actually proof of an unspoken hopefulness: things could be another way. We could be reasonable men. We could forget about our dicks. We could be—if not brave—at least less afraid. It’s close enough to drive them mad.
I was obsessed for years with High Violet and Boxer before moving back through Alligator, Cherry Tree, and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. I listened to their catalog in reverse, and the songs got happier and happier.
And maybe the reason it’s hard to say anything about The National is because they’ve already said so much about themselves. Their songs are bloody with self-examination, naked with exposition. And if there’s something they say more than anything else, I think, it’s this: we’re scared to death.
Things are always going wrong, or about to go wrong, or going right but it turns out things going right was the worst way things could have gone.
At one point Berninger is afraid he’s going to eat someone’s brains.
And it sounds ridiculous—and it sort of is ridiculous—but I know exactly how he feels: that ever-present paranoia, that constant feeling of being creeped the hell out. Like they say in the song “Afraid of Everyone”: “I’m afraid of everyone.” So maybe my love for The National lives at least partially inside this shared sense of dread, this shared fear of the world. I’m afraid of everyone, too. And eating someone’s brains has never felt completely out of the question.
Am I alone? I doubt it. And I think The National’s appeal comes from just how afraid we all are. We’re afraid of being frauds, but we’re also afraid of being sincere. We’re afraid of being failures, but we’re also afraid of expectations. We’re afraid of losing our jobs, but we’re also afraid of putting 50 years into a company we despise. We are faced every day with the lose-lose of our lives, of our genders, of our occupations, and we are asking ourselves what we are supposed to do next—What are we supposed to do next? And maybe the answer is obvious:
We become the best slow dancers in the motherfucking universe.
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