The National is one of my favorites. They seem to be able to collect a sentiment that I’m sure a lot of white guys must feel and turn that into moving, lyrical dense 2-4 minute pop songs. On past albums they have worked from quiet, ruminative figures that eventually develop into still hushed but anthemic songs. They remind me of Long Island, of the suburbs, of yuppies, of cocktail parties. Their message seems to point to the contradiction that I’m sure many of the affluent and collegiate among question when we feel comfortable enough to question it. The host of character’s in The National’s songs seem to say, yes, we are successful. We have this job, it pays wells. It affords us the opportunity to go to parties, to meet people and to talk. We have a wife or a girlfriend that loves us, whatever that means. But at bottom none of this is really meaningful.
What is life for those who have all the markers of success? What does it mean to live? The National provide no answers, but they do explore the depth and nature of the wound. Of course, they can’t go and say, this is what it means to lose meaning in one’s life. No one could, but they do spend some time playing around in the hole.
The latest from them, then, marks something of a departure. Lyrically all the songs on the record seem to explore the same themes they have in the past. However, the music has taken on a lusher, orchestrated production, almost triumphant. What the triumph might be is not exactly clear, but there seems to be a sense that The National has discovered what they want. The first track, one could properly say, is large. Appropriately and cryptically it’s titled “Terrible Love.”
But I believe it departs from the typical ennui of indie rock. They aren’t happy it’s true, but there’s an interesting set of juxtapositions lyrically and musically. From the choral parts and horn arrangements to: “It’s a Hollywood summer/You’ll never believe the shitty thoughts I think/Meet our friends out for dinner/When I said what I said I didn’t mean anything…We belong in a movie/Try to hold it together ’til our friends are gone/We should swim in a fountain/Do not want to disappoint anyone.” We’re brought into this life as a kind of play, an act. This set of lyrical tensions and contradictions, works toward an idea without naming it. Personal life, the intense thoughts and emotions one experiences, particularly here with a loved one, are meaningless, subordinated to living as if one is living the dream. A shared false play of happiness.
Matt Berninger, the band’s singer and songwriter, makes continued reference both to alcohol and to drug use, tellingly pills. He is all the time dropping hints at class, those that have access to prescription drugs. Berninger is a kind of documentary songwriter, choosing an unconventional milieu, as such he takes proper account of his characters: afraid, small, neurotic: “I try not to hurt anybody I like.”
The question I think The National are getting at is what exactly does it mean for our people (white, middle-class, yes) that we’ve wholly swallowed notions of what success and happiness means when these meanings are completely foreign to us, as individual people. Money, after all, will never care that we want it. At the same time our lives become sad little passion plays, and our loved ones are those that know we’re lying.
Catch up, if you missed it, with a review of last Spring’s latest release by The National