Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Music, Musing & Meaning: The National

 The National, live at The O2 Dublin, Nov 10th 2013

A little musical musing with a literary angle...

I'm always hesitant to write about music because I know there is a terminology to do so and I don't know it, but in this instance, I'm just going to have to try.

Because I had the great fortune of seeing my absolutely favourite band The National play live last week. And I feel I need to put my admiration for them into words, you know, to crystallize it. Why? Because I love them so! (And because I'd love nothing more than to persuade you dear readers to love them too - well, like at least - or if I could just pique your curiosity about them).

I say fortune, because, last time, I wasn't so fortunate. Or them either for that matter. December of 2010 when Ireland was under a snow-storm, they barely made the gig (they arrived 30 minutes late after having to drive from an alternative airport and thus  missing sound-check, but went ahead anyway and played a stomper gig) while I was snowed-in, no public transport running and no resolve (or adequate footwear) to  hike 4+ miles into the city centre through shin-deep snowdrifts to see them. Regret it I did, for a long while after. 

This time no snow, but it did rain, torrentially. But that was alright, quite fitting actually. Because there's  a lot if rain in The National's music. Water, in all its forms actually. It's just one example of the imagery they employ. In 'England'* from the album High Violet, it's raining in London and water seems to be an obstacle - 'put an ocean and a river between everybody, yourself and home; in '90 Mile Water Wall', the singer is wishing for a tsunami-like force to put distance between himself and his lover, 'I'm waiting for a 90 mile water wall to take me out of your view'; there's a dangerous ocean in 'Sea of Love', the song their recent album's title is taken from;  much like the ocean that's mentioned in 'Terrible Love' - 'it takes an ocean not to break'; in 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks' 'the water is rising'; in 'Little Faith', there's a gloomy lament that 'we're stuck in New York and the rain's coming down'; and  in 'Sorrow' there's a mournful plea: 'Don't leave my hyper heart alone on the water.'  Their debut album cover also features a man in water. 

Imagery, yes. You see The National are a very literate band. They've even been labelled an 'intellectual' band, such is the complexity of their lyrics and song meanings. A band, as the reviewer of the O2 gig (*below) puts it: that appeal to 'head, heart and guts.' But before I go into that, let me tell you a little bit about them.

The National are composed of two sets of brothers and 'a big blonde guy' as one magazine put it. Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner are the guitarist siblings that started it all going in Cincinnati, Ohio, but now the band is based in Brooklyn. Bryan Devendorf is the drummer (hailed as one of the best in the business - just listen to 'Squalor Victoria') and Scott Devendorf, his brother, is bass guitarist. Matt Berninger, the 'big blonde guy', is the lead singer and songwriter.

They've been in the music arena for 14 years now, staying on the tender hooks of alternative cult followings until they hit the bigtime only recently, with the release of their fifth studio album, the highly acclaimed High Violet in 2010. They were tagged as 'alt-country' when they first came out and their early albums do include a country twang, but now they are filed under 'indie alternative', even rock. They're old in terms of band ages these days  (all over 40 now) but all the wiser sound  for it. Their latest album, Trouble Will Find Me, released in the summer of this year, has catapulted the band into arena status worldwide. And, a coveted claim for any band - The National are revered by critics and fans alike. A band that come with many superlatives attached.

Their music has been described by many tags, including: Brooding. Sombre. Intense. Gloomy. Dour. Dark. Miserablist. Melancholic. Morose. Epic. Sublime.

The National's unique sound comes from wide orchestration. They employ a vast string and brass section to their songs, including: violin, viola, harp, cello; trombone, clarinet, coronet, saxophone, bassoon, trumpet, French horn - that adds a signature gusto to the climatic denouement of most of their songs. There's no denying their sound isn't saturated with a wearied bleakness which has earned them the accolade of 'miserablists'. But I prefer magnificently morose myself. For it takes a great band to articulate sincere sadness.  And The National map the emotional spectrum well. All the way from darkest ebony right through all the shades of black and grey - disillusion, ennui, disappointment, disaffection - finally to the luminous and uplifting white of epiphanies. But their main muse is sorrow. In their song 'Sorrow' from High Violet, they declare morbidly: 'I live in a city sorrow built/It's in my honey, it's in my milk.' They are nothing if not dedicated to melancholy. Earlier this year, they participated in a live art installation in MOMA in New York, singing 'Sorrow' on repeat for six hours. Six hours! Can you imagine?!

The National's recognizable sound is very much due to Berninger's low vocals. His voice is a broody baritone, with a low enough register to plumb the depths of despair, the perfect medium for all those malevolent heavy 'D' words their songs are themed on. His voice has been described as 'purposeful and harrowing' and he has been likened to Nick Cave at times. It was, without doubt, the first thing that drew me to the band. It was a voice you couldn't forget in a hurry, a voice that stuck with you, a voice most able to convey the dark nights of the soul. A voice so weighted with emotion, it was hard not to be affected by it.

As for the lyrics. Well. They are smart, to say the  least.

Obscure references, allusions and wordplay, give them an altogether poetic slant. Puns on language like: 'It's quiet company/It's quite a company' as a deliberately confusing one-liner in 'Terrible Love' demand attention from the listener. Metaphors are common too in their songs - there's an implication of zombies in 'Conversation 16': 'I was afraid I'd eat your brains' and songs with titles like 'I Should Live in Salt', 'Lemonworld', 'The Sin-Eaters' and 'Mr November' are laden with allegorical intent. Recurring motifs like spiders and birds and characters called Jenny, Karen and Joe add a continuous narrative thread to their oeuvre. They're prone to oxymorons too. In 'Demons', the first line beguilingly states: 'I get the sudden sinking feeling of a man about to fly'. And in 'You Were a Kindness', they proclaim: 'there's a radiant darkness upon us.'  There is.

Another feature of their lyrics is lots of catchy choruses that lodge in your mind with all the zing of a memorable hook, but pesky annoyance of  an incomplete crossword puzzle: 'Now we'll leave the silver city cause all the silver girls/Gave us black dreams/Leave the silver city 'cause all the silver girls/Everything means everything.' Not to mention the many arresting lines that pop out at you, what fans have termed the 'cryptic couplets'. 'Bloodbuzz Ohio's' refrain of: 'I was carried to Ohio/ in a swarm of bees' is one of these that buzz unrelentingly in your head after hearing it. From the new album, 'Don't Swallow the Cap' declares in a deadpan tone: 'I have only two emotions/careful fear and dead devotion', which one reviewer commented was the best lyric of the whole album, if not one of the best he's ever heard! 'Graceless', also from the new album, propels this head-scratching line at us: 'There's a science to walking through windows', while the album ends with  'Hard to Find' and the line: 'they can all just kiss off into the air.'  Phew.

Founding member and lead guitarist Aaron Dessner even remarks - 'Our songs are like these riddles that you need to unlock'. Riddles most definitely! (Google their song meanings and you'll see much dissension among fans who write in with their different interpretations). And very like poems in this regard, which are mutable and open to interpretation. They'd make great material for a critical analysis thesis!

Their song titles also, in themselves, make for intrigue - 'The Theory of Crows', (birds, as well as water, feature a lot in their songs), 'Looking for Astronauts', 'Patterns of Fairytales' ('and I turned it into fairytales/with glitter and some glue'), 'Sugar Wife', 'Slipping Husband', 'Anna Freud', 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks', 'Don't Swallow the Cap,' 'Pink Rabbits' are just some of the titles that stand out. Their sophomore album boasts a title you'd think twice about asking for in a shop - Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers - ahem. I'm always partial to a band with good song titles. It promises a story therein and an invitation to personal interpretation. A very writerly aspect again. More than you get in your average pop and rock song anyway. 

It's not just the lyrics that make them a literary kind of band. One of their songs, 'City Middle' from the album Alligator references literature straight-out - Tennessee Williams specifically ('I think I'm like Tennessee Williams, I wait for the click...'), and since that I've haven't been able to stop equating the band to American southern fiction. They especially remind me of the bleakness and greatness (and the sound and the fury) of Faulkner, Steinback and O'Connor; quirky, dark, wry and contrary, but all the time, deeply contemplative and resonant. They've been compared to the likes of poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen and even to the dark humour and world-wearied feistiness of Charles Bukowski (see article below).

Not to end the literary comparisons there, the lead singer, Matt Berninger, could easily be mistaken for a college professor, what with his onstage get-up of suit, tie, waistcoat and nerdy glasses, complete with intense disposition. He  has even been compared to a 'writer-in-residence' by one reviewer. He is married to a former literary editor of the prestigious arts & culture magazine The New Yorker and sounds exactly just like a tortured writer when he says,' 'I used to be the type of writer who would describe writing every word as bleeding drop by drop from the forehead', echoing Hemingway's famous catchphrase. On stage, he appears as a raconteur, an earnest poet almost, intense in his delivery of emotionally saturated songs, clutching at the microphone as in fervent prayer. And his writing technique? A notebook of course, in which he scribbles 'scraps' of lines that come to him sporadically (oh, that he can never find he says, much like myself...) It's this intelligent, contemplative and charismatic frontman that lend the band their sombre and brooding presence.

Their most iconic song, 'Fake Empire' from the album Boxer encapsulates their themes entirely I think, detailing as it does the state of delusion we often stray into it 'with bluebirds on our shoulders,' but dismay in our hearts,  not oblivious to the darkness around us, but rather, sillily thinking it can be something it is not. The first time I heard The National, it was this song (and it has been my favourite ever since.) It was on a favourite TV show at the time - One Tree Hill - in a scene which smacked of disillusion for the main female lead. The song just morphed from the background to the foreground so perfectly did it fit the disillusion, dejection and disappointment of the scene (without getting into it too much - a realisation of the soulless nature of LA). It was - undeniably real. Rubbed raw real. I'd never heard anything like it.  It seemed like every key of it was a tear track. Cold hard truth,  that's what it was. An epiphany of existential woe. A punch in the gut. And the vocal - well it was just maybe the most morose delivery of a lyric I've ever heard, with the slow pacing and defeated phrasing complimenting the subject-matter exactly.

'We're half awake in a fake empire...'

And so  off I went in eager search of more songs, balm to soothe a troubled soul, something to fill the crevices in the black and white version of life on offer all around. The National soundtrack all the grey areas of life that other musicians glaze over. Theirs are songs of failure, songs of disenchantment, songs of dreams gone long in the tooth, songs of sorrow that sink into your spirit like a drizzle of rain and lay there long enough to sprout a seed of defiance, songs that can open doors to the light amidst all this, to realisations, epiphanies, good and bad. Their sound is one that makes sense of a grey landscape, a grey narrative filled with downs as well as ups, and can most appease a heart eager to know that there is something more to it all.

'Mr November' is another similar offering to 'Fake Empire'. From the earlier album Alligator, when the band first started to come into their own, it's a song of aging angst, chronicling the regret of a failed high-school popular guy later in life, the Mr November of the title. The repeating frantic riff is a gut-deep plea for some kind of redemption and escape from the gnawing nostalgia that plagues him: 'I wish that I believed in Fate/I wish I didn't sleep so late/ I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders...' And November, being the bleakest and darkest of the months, is a most appropriate metaphor/personification. If you've ever felt the slightest twinge of regret in your life, this song is wrecking, to say the least:

'I'm the new blue-blood, I'm the great white hope'

But just as 'Fake Empire' can tear you down, the next track from that album Boxer (the band's fourth) 'Mistaken for Strangers' oils up your fighting spirit again with its feisty kick-ass drumbeat. As does 'Squalor Victoria', a defiant riposte, an almost-anthem for the doomed youth of today in material squander. On Alligator (the band's third album),  lest you get too low, the mood rises with high-jinxed high-speed shouty anthems like 'Abel', 'Lit-Up' and the dark-humoured 'Karen'. Not to mention the tongue-in-cheek sardonic, wry and ironic 'All the Wine' which you can't help but chuckle at, especially Berninger's cool deadpan delivery: 'I'm put together beautifully/ Big wet bottle in my fist/big wet rose in my teeth/ I'm a perfect piece of ass/ like every Californian/ so tall I take over the street/ with highbeams shining on my back/ a wingspan unbelievable/ I'm a festival, I'm a parade/and all the wine is all for me...' 

Other songs like 'Afraid of Everyone' from High Violet, are almost dystopian in their bleak visions: distrust of the government, distrust of everyone in relation to the dangers inherent in modern society. The band's most 'political' song to date they say. From the same album, 'Bloodbuzz Ohio' changes the tempo again - a great grizzly guitar-powered track of what seems to be a mix of nostalgia and regret, rejection and redirection. Of course it refers to Ohio of the band's hometown, but is it saying that 'you can't go home again' or that they miss home? Is it recognition of a loss or remonstrance of that loss? A lamenting or a lambasting? 'I never thought about love when I thought about home,' Berninger drawls. Here's a live version of the song which captures its spirit, and the band in all their amped-up glory:

'I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe...' 

They can do touching tender love songs too, without sentimentality. 'About Today' is a heart-beat-mimicking quiet song that develops its way to a  mournful conclusion of loss, helped along by a fragile violin keening and an half-whispered vocal. 'Daughters of the Soho Riots' is  lullaby-like in its tone and soft drumbeat and plays with language subtly: 'Break my arms around the one I love/ and be forgiven by the time my lover comes/ break my arms around my love'. '90 Mile Water Wall' is as endearing as it is clever. 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks' grapples with the hard truths of life and love: 'All the very best of us/string ourselves up for love' in haunting acoustic tones. And 'Son' always stands out to me as an one-of-a-kind in their songs, the soft beat a lulling reflection of fulfillment. But it's 'Slow Show' from Boxer, a firm fan favourite, which captures that exact warming feeling of when you realise who it is you want to be with; the startling acknowledgement of true love, with the surprising adage:  'You know I dreamed about you/ 29 years before I saw you':

'I want to hurry home to you...'

Theirs is also the music of soaring epiphanies, lots of goosebumps included.  'Terrible Love', perhaps their best-known single to date (due to extensive radio-play and it being in a certain phone provider's ad) is raucous and loud in its cathartic realisation and release of the need to put an end to a bad relationship. Like many of the songs on High Violet, it has a big build-up crescendo and an ending almost shattering in its urgent loudness and power. Yes, it's got gusto this song - and isn't afraid to flaunt it! The whole album infact, marks a new departure for the band into a more developed sound than the earlier ones. Indeed High Violet is often deemed 'epic' by reviewers. The wordplay and metaphorical reference is evident once again in 'Terrible Love''And I won't follow you down the rabbit hole/I said I would but then I saw/Your shiver bones/They didn't want me to':
 'It takes an ocean not to break...'

'England', perhaps their most uptempo, uplifting song, is triumphant in its acknowledgement of longing and loss: 'You must be somewhere in London/you must be loving your life in the rain'. But it's the accompanying rising melodic tones that indicate an emotional renewal of some kind, a crushing but enlivening feeling at the same time, like tears filling up a vale, so high that you become buoyant. It's a beautiful song, epiphanic and elated. The kind of song that your skin prickles to; a song where you can easily imagine all kinds of impossibilities becoming possible; a song of happenings. (The instrumental version was used in the soundtrack to last year's film 'The Vow', a true story of a couple trying to find their way when the wife is left incapable of remembering her marriage after a brain injury. 'England' plays first at the wedding and returns, now and then throughout the film, at the 'epiphany' moments  as a sort of theme tune to the miraculous remembrance of love.) And maybe that's what the song is too - remembering, tinged with nostalgia.  It's most certainly memorable:

 'Someone send a runner for the weather that I'm under/ for the feeling that I lost today'

Emotional dirges feature a lot on The National's albums. An earlier one that I find particulary striking is 'City Middle', a song that can crush you with its concentration of feeling filtered through the rising swell of music and voices towards the climatic end. The simply stated lyrics are in stark contrast to the rising tone and emote an existential crisis of the greatest magnitude: 'Parking your car, you said, I'm overwhelmed/ You were thinking out loud, you said, I'm overwhelmed... I think I'm like Tennessee Williams I wait for the click, I wait,  but it doesn't kick in.' The music is an overwhelming. This was the song, after 'Fake Empire', that alerted me to the fact that - damn, here was one good band. I swear, listen to this song and see if doesn't cast its hook in you and pull hard.  

 'I have weird memories of you...'

The band's latest album Trouble Will Find Me is another collection of songs with significance, songs that can pummel meaning through like a punch. Songs all couched in an unmistakeable sound, but this time, clarified and even more concentrated. There are dirges and defiant anthems, brooding reflections and flights of feistiness, and of course, sorrow, by the bucketloads. There's one lyric from the adamant refrain of 'This is The Last Time' that seems to explain a lot about The National's overall thematic preference:  'It takes a lot of pain to lift me up/it takes a lot of rain in the cup'. I think it was Matt who commented that sadness can be 'sweet', and sometimes I suppose, it is. The bittersweet lounging in melancholy that adds substance to us. Their music, full of 'radiant darkness', makes it tolerable, makes it known, and gives it meaning. 

'I won't be vacant anymore/I won't be waiting anymore...'

All music translates feelings, but when it comes to The National, I think they do it differently somehow. More effectively, yes. Achingly, yes. Cleverly, yes. 

Whenever I'm asked to describe what kind of band The National are, I falter. They are so many things that it's hard to define. I hope I've tried here to get a handle on them, but then there's that other factor that slips away, the real x-factor, that unwordable fact about a band you love that is vague, but delightful in that vagueness, mysterious, magic.  A marker of a great band.

The National occupy a special place in my collection as the band that always bring me back to myself. You know that feeling, when you wander off, lose yourself, get unmoored in the unpredictable rhythms of life? Well, they are the ones who bring me back. All it takes is the first few familiar chords, and I'm found. As simply and as surely as that. It's like in their melodies, in their lyrics, there's a code that can unlock everything that's locked up in me. And I suddenly remember who I am, what's important to me, via their music. Music I suppose, as the map that can lead us back to ourselves - to the innermost shelved emotions, the memories, the knowings. Music as a compass too, helping us navigate the routes of life, especially the silences. In them, it keeps us sound, keeps us sane. 

And The National just happen to be my port of call as a band that consistently do this. Their music says something to me that can't be ignored. And I'm so lucky to have found them. Cause once you find a band you love, you're never alone, really. ~ 

'Every time you get a drink
And every time you go to sleep
Are those dreams inside your head
Is there sunlight on your bed
And every time you're driving home
Way outside your safety zone
Wherever you will ever be
You're never getting rid of me

You own me
There's nothing you can do
You own me

Lucky you'  ~ 'Lucky You' 

To see them live, as to see any band or musician you like live, was an exhilarating experience.  The music becomes more 'alive'. You always rediscover a few more songs based on their live performance and listen to them then again with newly tuned ears.  The concert was of course, brilliant. The beats louder, the lyrics more fervent, especially when sung by a collective audience of 10,000+. Everything more real. And it was great to see them in the flesh (even if it was at a great distance). (The acoustic singalong of 'Vanderlyle..' at the end was superb. Watch here) And of course, the complimentary buzzing you get for weeks after, floating on a cloud of the music reknown. Well, you just can't beat that. 

I don't know if I've managed to explain here how great The National are or how much I like them better than oh, say, the proverbial 'fuckin' brilliant' comment that appears under all their songs in YouTube (sometimes it's the only and best in-awe reaction). They won't appeal to everyone I know - for example if you're a bubblegum-pop fan listening to the likes of Katy Perry, their superior musicianship may be lost on you. But if you're a fan of good music, I guarantee they will work their charms on you. They're a band that may require patience at first, but if you put a bit in, it will pay off immensely.

Oh, and did I mention, The National are also the ideal band to listen to in November? No one better to channel and overcome the bleakness of the month than they! Mr. Novembers, most certainly.

Comments most dearly welcome on who your favourite band(s) is/are and why. 

Here's to the power of music :)

~ Siobhán

*(There's nothing as inadequate as a blog about music without music, so as you can see I've included some audio videos of the songs here. Also you may notice that nearly every song mentioned is highlighted - just click on it to take you to YouTube to listen to that song. Enjoy.)*

Some interesting articles on The National:

Pitchfork Interview 2010
The National Play 'Sorrow' for 6 Hours at MOMA
The Guardian May 2013 'Our Songs Are About Death'
The Guardian Review July 2013
Drunk and Sparking: The National Vs Charles Bukowski
*The National Live at The O2 Dublin - Review

Watch the band perform an intimate special acoustic show:

The National: NPR Music - Tiny Desk Concert


  1. The National is my very favorite band as well!! I saw them live this summer in the States, and it was an unbelievable experience. I also cannot put it into words.

    And a torrential downpour opened up during their concert then too. It was the best way to listen to them, with rain pounding on the roof above us. I'm glad you got that experience too. :)

    1. Hi Kay, great to hear from another National fan! Oh cool! Seems rain follows them everywhere then, ha! We didn't hear it on the roof, but when they played 'England', the screen-show behind was rain streaming down over the visuals of the band. It added to the atmosphere so much.
      Thanks for your comment :)

  2. Hi Siobhan, great story on the snowed-in gig.

    Very glad to you got to see them.
    I very much used an upcoming gig of theirs as a self imposed deadline for a thesis submission back in May 2008.
    It was well worth it to spend an extra few hours in the evening making sure I'd get it done before their gig.

    You no doubt have heard this track, but I reckon it would be one of my favourite, albumless as it is in many ways... "So Far Around The Bend"

    by the way, I think you've summed them up pretty darn well.
    their melancholy is only sad if you don't see the honesty behind it


    1. Thanks Paul for commenting,

      Very true, one of the labels that should go with them is 'honest'. Of course! That's it exactly. And a very contemplative melancholy it is too. Full of greatness.

      Forgot to mention that compilation...! Good song.

      Hope your gig was a good one! I didn't latch on to them till 2009 unfortunately. Now I'm making up for it... :)


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