Here are some of the adjectives critics and commentators have used to describe the music of The National: melancholy, dour, dark, miserablist, dirge-like, bleak, morose, sad, monotonous, downbeat, pretentious.
Such a barrage of unpleasantness might understandably lead you to choose to spend your music dollars, euros or pounds elsewhere. Those adjectives certainly don’t combine to form a ringing endorsement of the band’s talents or orientation. You may even be asking yourself, “Why would anyone want to listen to an album of depressing, artsy-fartsy crapola?”
Well, I suppose I could refer you to music consumers in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, the UK or the United States who helped one or more of The National’s albums climb into their country’s Top 10, but I certainly hope that no one in my reading audience has that much time on their hands. Since we all know that chart success doesn’t often correlate with musical excellence, let’s shelve that idea. I could point to the Alternative Rock Grammy The National won a few years ago, but whenever I hear that so-and-so won a Grammy, my usual response is “Well, there they go, straight down the shithole.”
Allow me to save you a lot of time and energy searching for the answer to this puzzle by sharing a quote from frontman and lyricist Matt Berninger from the rock doc Mistaken for Strangers that will get you half the way home. In this quote, Matt reflected on the challenges facing every indie band that ever existed and how The National stumbled onto a solution:
For so long, like, you know, we’d go on tour and no one would be coming. It was so humiliating for us, you know. But that happened a lot though. And I remember like the first time we played at Mercury Lounge and there was nobody there. After that show, I went straight home and closed the door and I think I just started crying. And I think when we started putting that tension and anxiety and fear and humiliation into the music, just putting it out there, it made us closer to each other. And for the people that did come to the shows, that was the connection.
So now the question is, “What was going on in the early 21st century that would have triggered a craving for music filled with tension, anxiety and fear?”
I can’t speak for Gen X fans of The National, but I can certainly describe my experience as a Millennial hitting puberty in the USA of the ’90s. The Millennial experience has been one of repeated, wide-scale disruption. For most of the ’90s, it was pretty cool disruption because of the multi-faceted revolution in technology. We had colored iMacs! Flip phones! An Internet that wasn’t a virtual shopping mall but an access point to new ideas and people all over the world! Politics was a bad joke about a guy who walked into the White House and shot his wad on some intern’s dress. There was something going on in the far-off Balkans, but why pay any attention to that when you can play Resident Evil 2, Xenogears or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? The soundtrack that defined the decade was a melange of diverse genres, from rap to Britpop to punk revival, but the music most relevant to our story came from the early ’90s in the form of grunge, a genre that normalized the expression of angst and anxiety. Grunge taught us that it was okay to voice our feelings, no matter how weird and inappropriate those feelings might be. That said, we were feeling pretty good as the century drew to a close. The economy was booming, unemployment was yesterday’s news and some economic experts were convinced we had entered a period of permanent prosperity. We felt safe and secure about the present and the future.
Then, WHAM! The bubble burst, the planes crashed and America changed from a happy, hopeful place to a dark, gloomy neo-con nightmare marked by two undeclared wars of devious intent and lousy execution. The mass killings perpetrated by invisible terrorists spread around the world—from Bali to Madrid, from London to Mumbai. Most of us were shocked and deeply depressed when the moronic hand-puppet Bush II was re-elected. Friends called me in tears, asking, “How could this happen?” I usually responded with one of my father’s go-to’s— “Never underestimate the stupidity of the American people”—but that flippant response masked my true feelings. I felt like some omniscient evil being had flipped a switch that transformed hope into despair. Instead of moving forward, everything seemed to be turning backward.
So there we were—experiencing the usual uncertainty and pain that every generation experiences when you’re trying to figure out who the hell you are and feeling tense, anxious and fearful about the present and the future. And just like the generations who preceded us, we hungered for music that expressed what we were feeling inside. In the 50s, teens turned to rock ‘n’ roll for its sexuality and non-conformist message; in the 60s, once The Beatles had made it okay to feel happy again after JFK’s assassination, the insatiable curiosity of Baby Boomers demanded music that was new, different and pregnant with meaning. Those who fell in love with disco just wanted to have some fun during those dreary days of recession and malaise; in the UK, they turned to punk to relieve the tension of an equally dreary period in the Mother Country. Many GenXers embraced the nihilism of Nirvana and the grunge scene, and while Millennials teethed on Nirvana, the sheer diversity of the music of the 90s and 00s created a generation with radically different musical tastes—but for those who consider themselves serious rock fans, the popularity of Radiohead and The National is due in part to their ability express the melancholic uncertainty of life as a Millennial.
Yes, I said “in part” because I wouldn’t classify either band as “dark and gloomy.” I find both bands complex, musically interesting and dedicated to artistic integrity. They don’t shy away from the dark side, but I certainly don’t think either band wallows in misery. Matt Berninger provided a more thorough response to the indictment of darkness in an interview on The Scenestar given shortly after the release of Boxer:
SS: Speaking of your lyrics, they have been described as dark, melancholy and difficult to interpret. Would you agree with those descriptions?
Matt: If you put our records against the average indie rock or pop record, maybe they’re on the darker side of the spectrum, but I’ve never really thought of them on their own as being really depressing or dark or morbid. I think maybe we’re a little left of center on that and have a little more of that than most bands. But on their own, with respect to themselves, I think they’re pretty balanced with humor and optimism. I can understand that we sometimes get that description, but I think it’s just one part of what we’re doing. And I wouldn’t put it in that category myself as being dark really.
Since Matt writes the lyrics (occasionally in collaboration with his wife, Carin Besser, a writer and former fiction editor at The New Yorker), you may think there’s a teeny bit of bias here, but Matt’s a pretty self-aware guy and I agree with his self-assessment.
The process used by The National to get to those lyrics ensures tight integration with the rhythms and moods in the music. The compositions always start with the music, usually written by one or both twin brothers in the band, multi-instrumentalists Aaron and Bryce Dessner (usually Aaron). Matt then responds to what he hears in the music and translates the listening experience into words. Sometimes the “songs” are mere sketches and go through many iterations where they add, subtract and shape the piece. It’s not uncommon for a song to go through an extended period of development in both the studio and individual home recording set-ups, eventually involving everyone in the creation. Such a process requires mutual respect and a high degree of collaboration, and there is plenty of evidence to indicate that The National has figured out how to pull that off. The lineup has been steady for twenty-odd years (like Radiohead) and I can’t recall a National song I’d describe as “sloppy.” That lineup also features an exceptionally strong rhythm section in the form of another brotherly pair (not twins), Scott Devendorf (bass) and Brian Devendorf (drums). While the arrangements the band comes up with tend towards greater density, you never lose track of the rhythms that drive the song. In addition to the five core members, The National frequently work with a variety of top-flight musicians to enrich their sound.
I’ll close this introduction by challenging the perception noted in the last adjective in the list—“pretentious.” Pretentiousness in music occurs when an artist attempts to create something far beyond their capabilities, largely motivated by an inflated sense of self-importance. I don’t get that from The National at all. What I hear is a band that has worked hard on their craft and persevered through the rough patches of indie rock to create music that matters.
Boxer was The National’s fourth full-length album and the first to make a dent in the US and European charts. Their first three attempts were warmly received by the relatively few critics covering indie rock, and though none of those efforts disturbed the charts, sales figures continued to rise with each new release. Boxer proved to be the breakthrough, artistically and commercially. “Boxer is where the National became the National as we know them,” opined Ryan Leas of Stereogum, adding “This was the beginning of The National becoming one of the foremost rock artists of this century, the album you can credit for the band’s stature, sound, and identity today.”
The album’s title has nothing to do with pugilism but came from a suggestion by Carin Besser. In this YouTube interview, Matt shared why the title stuck: “It seemed appropriate. The characters are sort of fighting for something, trying to hold onto things, or hold onto youth—or are in some sort of struggle.” The struggles involve introverts trying to survive in a world where appearances matter, young people transforming themselves into automatons as they embark on careers, off-kilter relationships of various sorts, dealing with the unforeseen consequences of change—mostly coming-of-age struggles to define oneself in a world that is either indifferent to your plight or wants to take care of that definition for you.
The one song that doesn’t fit the pattern involves the absence of struggle where there damn well should be one. Matt described “Fake Empire” as a situation “where you can’t deal with the reality of what’s really going on,” but what he’s really talking about is the pathetic denial of the American people to realize that their country is headed down the shithole of history.
Bryce Dressler composed the music for this one and I have to admit that when I first heard the song I found it difficult to figure out the damned time signature to the piano part in the introduction—I had to ask my mother to join me on the piano bench and have her play the left hand while I played the right. We both agreed that we were dealing with a polyrhythm but couldn’t decide which was dominant—4 / 4 or 3 / 4. Fortunately, my parents were still living in San Francisco at the time and my mother found the solution in an article on Boxer that appeared in the Chronicle, wherein Bryce explained it all:
The first song, ‘Fake Empire,’ is one that I wrote,” he noted, “and conceptually I said I would love to write a song that was based on a certain polyrhythm, the four-over-three pattern, which is what you hear in the piano. It’s something I, personally, have never heard in rock music. What’s interesting is the song sounds like it’s in four, but it’s in three. The harmonies and the way I’m playing the piano music are actually incredibly simple — sort of like ‘Chopsticks’ simple — with this really weird rhythm.
That “really weird rhythm” expresses dislocation and disconnection, and Matt couldn’t have selected a better topic for dislocation and disconnection than American decline. With his baritone voice taking on a tone somewhere between half-asleep and half-awake, he imbues the lyrics with a weary sadness. In the first verse he employs symbols of American innocence—apple pie (as in “as American as apple pie”) and lemonade (calling up images of kids and the summer lemonade stand but spiked for the adults)—symbols that no longer reflect the reality of the home of the brave:
Stay out super late tonight
Picking apples, making pies
Put a little something in our lemonade
And take it with us
We’re half awake in a fake empire
We’re half awake in a fake empire
While Rome burned, Nero played the fiddle; while America burned, Americans got fat and drunk. In the second verse, Matt shifts the scene to what could be any upscale urban enclave (though it’s probably New York), where we find the inhabitants living in a Cinderella-like dream—people without a care in the world, enjoying the fruits of paper wealth while hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens sleep on the streets, people who haven’t a clue that the ice they’re skating on is getting pretty damned thin:
Tiptoe through our shiny city
With our diamond slippers on
Do our gay ballet on ice
Bluebirds on our shoulders
We’re half awake in a fake empire
We’re half awake in a fake empire
Up to this point, the arrangement is limited to piano and Matt’s vocal. An instrumental transition begins right after the second chorus, where the Devendorf brothers make a subtle entrance, supporting the piano with bass and kick. Scott’s bass drops out for a moment as the piano plays the baseline chords and Bryan tosses in three snare runs that eventually transform into the fill that cues the last verse. Now the band is working at full power, with Scott’s bass providing a solid, satisfying bottom. I have to confess that sometimes I tune everyone out but Bryan and just focus on how where he accents both polyrhythms in a stunning display of drumsmanship, but eventually I return to Matt’s sign-off:
Turn the light out, say goodnight
No thinking for a little while
Let’s not try to figure out everything at once
It’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky
We’re half awake in a fake empire
We’re half awake in a fake empire
Yes, the world is a mess but let’s not think about it, have a nice little fuck, go to sleep and open our eyes still half-awake in a country with no capacity for self-reflection but with plenty of grandiose visions of world domination.
The song ends with a horn fanfare written by Padma Newsome, a passage that AllMusic described as a moment when “peppy brass and guitars turn it into something joyous.” Apparently the moron who wrote that piece missed the utter irony of that passage . . . as did the Obama campaign, who wanted to borrow an instrumental version of “Fake Empire” for a hope-drenched campaign video. Aaron Dessner remembered the moment: “When they first asked permission to use ‘Fake Empire’ we wondered, ‘Do they know it’s about how fucked up America is and wanting to leave?’ Later these right-wing bloggers criticized Obama for using an ‘unpatriotic’ song.”
Baby Boomers will immediately recognize the meaning of that last bit of criticism—it’s the old “America, love it or leave it” crap that members of that generation had to deal with when they attempted to get Americans to face up to the horrors they were inflicting in Vietnam. Americans have consistently refused to face the truth about their country for decades, and all I can say is this: if last week’s news cycle featuring the Supreme Court loosening gun controls after another spate of mass murders, demoting women to chattel status, and furthering their scarcely hidden agenda of abolishing the separation of church and state—to say nothing of the unsurprising revelations confirming that Trump is a fucking madman—then the Fake Empire will either collapse in a bloody civil war and/or become the fascist stronghold of right-wing dreams.
The new Star Trek: Strange New Worlds predicts a Second Civil War that will bring down the whole world; I’m going with fascism because as long as Americans have money, football, violent movies, chicken wings and plenty of beer, they really don’t give a shit about who’s running the country.
One thing Matt Berninger and I have in common is that we both forged careers that involve getting people to buy shit (he in advertising, me in marketing). Fortunately for posterity, Matt had the talent and determination to switch to music in his early thirties so he could write songs like “Mistaken for Strangers” for people like me who continue to put up with the bullshit because it pays the bills.
Though I had a very specific agenda when I entered Corporate America (to land a job with a company that had operations in France so I could move there someday), the transition from the relative freedom of working odd jobs to the mysterious norms of corporate culture was a culture shock of stunning proportions. I had to look the part and act the part but no one ever explained how the play was supposed to turn out. I learned that asking questions and making suggestions made me look stupid, so I just did whatever management told me to do and tried to figure it out as I went. I carried around a bizarre feeling of dread that even if I did what I was told they’d still think I was fucking up. I couldn’t figure out the fucking game.
It all comes back to me when I hear the eerie, dissonant, metallic guitar conveying alarm during the intro to “Mistaken for Strangers,” and somewhat embarrassed when Matt comes in and describes exactly what I was going through:
You have to do it running
But you do everything that they ask you to
‘Cause you don’t mind seeing yourself in a picture
As long as you look faraway, as long as you look removed
Showered and blue-blazered, fill yourself with quarters
Showered and blue-blazered, fill yourself with quarters
Yeah, I had the classic Brooks Brothers look to go with my squeaky-clean body, but the phrase that really hits home is “fill yourself with quarters,” because I felt like that piece-of-shit dryer in the laundromat that keeps eating quarters but never really gets the fucking clothes dry. I was flailing and failing and I knew it and thought everybody else knew it.
And yeah, my friends couldn’t believe the transition from cocky leather-and-spikes punk chick to mass-produced corporate issue:
You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends
When you pass them at night
Under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights
Arm in arm in arm and eyes and eyes, glazing under
But as Matt patiently explains, it was just another rite of passage in the struggle for maturity:
Oh, you wouldn’t want an angel watching over you
Surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t wanna watch
Another un-innocent, elegant fall
Into the un-magnificent lives of adults
I remember entering my manager’s office for my first performance review six months later, fully expecting to get my ass canned. Guess what? They fucking promoted me! To this day I still have no idea what I actually did to earn that promotion, but I suspect it was a Lenny Bruce thing—tits and ass. Though the memories it evokes aren’t particularly pleasant, I love “Mistaken for Strangers.” The Devendorfs kick ass like there’s no tomorrow with aggressive drums and bass, and Matt more than holds his own with a vocal of scarcely-disguised disdain for the dehumanization inherent in the corporate experience. The guitars alternate between eerie crunch and dreamy sweetness, and as the song proceeds, the additional layers create a Wall of Sound that makes Phil Spector look like a piker.
I have a much harder time relating to “Brainy,” as the song is about a guy who is attracted to a woman because she’s smarter than he is. We’ve all been dumped by someone, but all of my dumpings have involved male partners who found me too intelligent for their tastes. “You’re too deep for me,” one guy told me over drinks. I said nothing, ordered another drink and left him with the tab.
Though I can’t relate to the song on a personal level, “Brainy” is an interesting character sketch—it’s hard not to feel some empathy for a guy in such a vulnerable position. “I was up all night again, boning up and reading the American dictionary” is brilliant poetic economy, capturing his desire to impress, his position of weakness and the growth of his member in response to female intelligence. The music is full of contrast and tension—aggressive rhythms tempered by mournful strings, organ and accordion—and Matt plays the poor sap to perfection.
“Squalor Victoria” is probably the most cryptic song on the album. The verses consist of repeated couplets; the first makes it pretty clear that Matt is reliving life in the advertising world (“Underline everything/I’m a professional in my beloved white shirts”) and the second reveals how he felt like a magician engaging in a bit of trompe-l’œil to make it appear to himself and those around him that he knew what the fuck he was doing (“Out of my league, I have birds in my sleeves/And I wanna rush in with the fools”). I have no idea what he means when he says “I’m going down among the saints” or what the phrase “squalor victoria” signifies in the context of the song (translated from Latin as either “victory of squalor” or “triumphant filth”). In the last verse, he’s “zoning out,” and the closing line (“This isn’t working, you, my middlebrow fuck up”) is the ironically triumphant result of that disconnection. Leaving the puzzle of the middle for another day, I do love the arrangement with Bryan’s muscular drums conveying anxiety and internal noise, the viola adding a sense of pathos and the piano a touch of vulnerability.
I’ve read some comments on the web that describe “Green Gloves” as “creepy,” and Matt did acknowledge the challenges involved in trying to avoid that outcome: “It was hard to take that song and guide it away from being a stalker song or about somebody breaking and entering or somebody violating someone’s personal space.” Here’s what he was really trying to accomplish:
It’s more about trying to remember someone and sort of be them—someone that you’ve lost your connection with (maybe because of a death)—so you reconnect with them by getting inside their clothes, watching their videos, getting in their bed. You’re actually recreating them somehow in order to know them better. You miss them so much you have to become them.
If there’s someone you absolutely miss, you might find yourself talking to them a lot in your mind, creating those fake conversations with them and you answer yourself in their voice in your head. Maybe it’s a girlfriend who dumped you or you know someone who died or that sort of thing, you adopt their personality or the memory of who they were as a means of staying close to them.
I’ll admit here and now that I have found myself in conversation with ex-lovers in my mind, usually re-creating the critical moment when the choice was made to end the relationship. “What if I would have said ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’? What if I hadn’t been so high-and-mighty? Damn, he/she was a really good fuck. What an idiot I am! No, it was for the best. I wonder what happened to them. Shit!”
I think the perception of creepiness has more to do with the build than the lyrics. The song begins rather sweetly with natural acoustic guitar and piano; the natural sound is replaced by processed guitar without disturbing the mood. We find Matt reminiscing about old friends and wondering what they’re doing now:
Falling out of touch with all my
Friends are somewhere, getting wasted
Hope they’re staying glued together
I have arms for them
That verse is in D major, and though it’s followed by a complementary instrumental break in B minor that adds a touch of melancholy to Matt’s reminiscences, the piece retains its initial sweetness. The song turns slightly towards the ominous in the first chorus when the bass enters, and as the song proceeds and more bottom layers are added, the chorus takes on a much darker cast than they may have intended:
Get inside their clothes with my green gloves
Watch their videos in their chairs
Get inside their beds with my green gloves
Get inside their heads, love their loves
It doesn’t help that the immediate hit you get from “green gloves” is either medical or nefarious—when those words are combined with heavy, gloomy sound, they do feel kinda creepy—as if Matt is starting to slide into a psychological black hole (an impression intensified by the timbre of his baritone). I rather like “Green Gloves,” but it’s hard to sync Matt’s benign explanation of the story with the edgy build.
The struggle described in “Slow Show” will be familiar to every introvert on the planet: there you are, stuck at some soirée you desperately wanted to avoid but someone told you that you had to make an appearance and holy shit! The place is full of people!
Standing at the punch table, swallowing punch
Can’t pay attention to the sound of anyone
A little more stupid, a little more scared
Every minute, more unprepared
Our extraverted universe refuses to take into account that introverts find social situations requiring them to spontaneously interact with people and make small talk the most exhausting and unpleasant experiences imaginable. I think the longest my introverted partner has lasted at such a function is fifteen minutes. When her alarm bells go off, she leans over to me and whispers in my ear something like this:
I wanna hurry home to you
Put on a slow, dumb show for you and crack you up
So you can put a blue ribbon on my brain
God, I’m very, very frightened, I’ll overdo it
Okay, she actually whispers something like, “Let’s go to our room and make love,” which always gets my attention. The character Matt plays in “Slow Show” has a lot in common with my sweetie, physiological differences aside:
Looking for somewhere to stand and stay
I leaned on the wall and the wall leaned away
Can I get a minute of not being nervous
And not thinking of my dick?
The main arrangement is marked by contrast and variety, with the edginess of the “orchestration” softened by strummed Latinate guitar (I really wish they’d thrown in some maracas). That movement suddenly (but not abruptly) vanishes in the fade, replaced by piano, bass and drums as Matt reaches back to their debut album and borrows the lyrics to the chorus of “29 Years” to complete the song. This wasn’t a lazy cut-and-paste decision, but an acknowledgment of the absolute truth that we all grow up looking for that one person who will complete us and make our journey through life less scary and more fulfilling.
“Apartment Story” was the second single plucked from the album (“Mistaken for Strangers” came first, “Fake Empire” third). The arrangement here is straightforward, relentless rock ‘n’ roll with solid bass and drums, varied but always rough guitar with a dynamic build that dramatically enhances the listening experience.
In other words, this song kicks ass!
It’s also one of the best sing-along songs on the album with the proviso that the lyrics are from the point of view of a character with his head up his ass attached to an equally flawed partner. I’ve frequently identified the theme of “relationship as refuge” as one of the core messages of rock ‘n’ roll, but “Apartment Story” veers from that theme to explore a couple who go into hiding for reasons other than celebrating their everlasting love.
We find our hoity-toity pair getting dressed for what appears to be an evening out . . .
Be still for a second while I try and try to pin your flowers on
La, la, la, la, la
Can you carry my drink, I have everything else
I can tie my tie all by myself
I’m getting tied, I’m forgetting why
. . . but they’re really not going anywhere.
Oh, we’re so disarming, darling, everything we did believe
Is diving, diving, diving, diving off the balcony
Tired and wired, we ruin too easy
Sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave
I suspect winter is just an excuse. They’ve abandoned their ideals in the pursuit of happiness (i. e, money) and after an exhausting day of making money just want to stay home, dressed to the nines, get tight and enjoy the fruits of their labors. As befits a pair who accumulate out of habit, music is just a commodity, a thing you do because, well, that’s what everybody else does:
Hold ourselves together
With our arms around the stereo for hours
La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la
While it sings to itself or whatever it does
When it sings to itself of its long lost loves
I’m getting tied, I’m forgetting why
Man, I’m really glad I don’t know these people.
Next we hear about how their tired and wired condition allows them to avoid both responsibility and contact: “And I’ll be with you, behind the couch/When they come on a different day, just like this one.” I can’t verify who “they” are, but I’m assuming it’s the maid and not the taxman—but anything’s possible given the lack of moral character in this pair.
“Apartment Story” blurs the distinction between chorus and verse; at first it seems that “Tired and wired, we ruin too easily . . .” is the chorus, but the repetition of the next set of lyrics would indicate that this is the true chorus:
We’ll stay inside till somebody finds us
Do whatever the TV tells us
Stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz for days
We’ll stay inside till somebody finds us
Do whatever the TV tells us
Stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz
The “rosy-minded fuzz” echoes the “half-awake” state of inhabitants of the Fake Empire, spiced with plenty of booze. But despite their rejection of the social whirl, the couple still insists on maintaining appearances:
So worry not, all things are well
We’ll be alright, we have our looks and perfume on
Whoa! That might have been healthy psychological advice during say . . . oh, I don’t know . . . a pandemic? But these are just a couple of assholes who refuse to engage with the world and its problems because they’re not their fucking problems. You can blame the MAGA crowd for America’s downward trajectory, but don’t forget the tens of millions of people like these two who simply don’t give a crap about anyone except themselves. What I find most amazing about “Apartment Story” is that though I loathe these characters to the core, I always find myself singing along to that damned chorus. Great job, guys!
Although this might look weird in print and will seem even weirder when I tell you that the song is about a relationship on the rocks, “Start a War” is one of the loveliest songs on the album. The opening guitar duet courtesy of the Dessners is absolutely gorgeous, complementary arpeggios musing over truncated fingerings of F, C, G and Am. The pattern itself is emotionally neutral; with a different melody, the song could have been all sunshine and light. Its melancholy flavor comes to the fore when Matt enters with a vocal marked by emotional exhaustion and dread about where the relationship is headed:
We expected something
Something better than before
We expected something more
Do you really think
You can just put it in a safe behind a painting
Lock it up and leave? (2)
Walk away now and you’re gonna start a war
Whether that’s a threat or a simple acknowledgment of a likely outcome is unclear; all we know at this point is that she has ended negotiations and has nothing more to say. The music undergoes a slight increase in intensity with light drums, bass and low strings—things are getting heavier as the narrator grapples with the presence of a partner who has cut off communication. As is often the case when one person freezes out the other, the frozen one tries to fill the silence—partially out of anxiety, partially to fill the void—but what often comes out is a self-deprecating description of one’s shortcomings along with a promise to turn things around:
Whatever went away
I’ll get it over now
I’ll get money
I’ll get funny again (2)
Oh, how that verse breaks my heart! It sounds like he’s lost his job, and when you lose your job in America, you’ve lost both your identity and any status or sense of self-worth you held before. We don’t know if the rift between them was caused by money troubles (they did expect “something better than before”) or the depression that often accompanies a long period of unemployment. Part of me thinks if it’s just about money the woman is a true bitch, but I also know how difficult it is to connect, communicate with or help a person in the black hole of depression, so she may have simply reached her limit—an interpretation supported by the couplet in the next verse, “You were always weird/But I never had to hold you by the edges like I do now.” She is fragile and ready to break.
The gradual increase in the music’s intensity continues through the final verse and chorus, an aural message that anxiety and blood pressure are rising as the situation becomes more and more hopeless. The build to the orchestral passage at the end of the song is executed with suitable foreshadowing by the brief appearance of a cello, so when the music shifts to flute, horns, strings and guitar, the effect is not jarring but deeply satisfying. Even more satisfying is the reappearance of the Dessner’s guitar duet, a full-circle move that echoes the “going ’round in circles” status of the relationship.
Unfortunately, I’m not at all enamored of “Guest Room,” which repeats the metaphor of hiding from the world previously covered in “Apartment Story” (“They’ll find us here/Here, here in the guest room”) and adds a new one Matt picked up from a scene in Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute where a woman throws money at a stranger following her to make him go away. Matt explained to Paste that the act of throwing money “was used in the song to represent those awkward intimate moments where you have those really stupid, ugly things that you do in a relationship when you get fed up with each other or whatever.” Fair enough, but the song really doesn’t capture the manic flavor of such moments. “Racing Like a Pro” also seems to be a rehash, this time involving the transition to meaningless work covered in “Mistaken for Strangers” but Matt makes a last-minute save with the repeated closing line, “You’re dumbstruck, baby,” another example of his exceptional ability to find le mot juste—the song’s heroine may be dumbstruck by the speed and intensity of the 21st-century workplace, but the experience is also making her thick and stupid. Business environments can do that to ya!
“Ada” is a collaboration involving Scott Devendorf (music) and Matt Berninger and his wife Carin Besser (lyrics). With all due respect to the official members of The National and Ms. Besser, what really knocks my socks off about “Ada” is the guest appearance by Sufjan Stevens on the piano. His arpeggios are marvelous, his use of the piano to enhance the rhythm superb and his counterpoint melodies stunningly beautiful. That said, Scott Devendorf’s compositional instincts are spot-on, and I love the variations in dynamics and mood that live on the border somewhere between jazz and rock. As for the lyrics, the only thing I can come up with is that they represent a character sketch of a rather elusive personality, but I can’t quite endorse the view of some that the character is based on Adah in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible—the Adah in that book has the elusiveness but also a complex intelligence not captured in the song.
Boxer comes to a close with Aaron Dessner providing the music for a second wife-and-husband lyrical collaboration on “Gospel.” The song’s slow, reflective feel makes it the perfect closer for an album dealing with the common struggles of humankind, and its impressionistic lyrics highlight a truism about those struggles: we still have a long way to go to master the skill of expressing what we’re feeling and thinking. The narrator seems like a lost soul in search of companionship and understanding but finds it difficult to get past all the junk floating in his head so he can forge a solid connection with the people he wants to reach. What comes out could be bits of paranoia or symptoms of PTSD; his “gifts” may be appropriate or inappropriate; but it’s absolutely clear that something has happened in his life that has damaged his sense of self and his relational compass:
I got two armfuls of magazines for you, I’ll bring ’em over
So hang your holiday rainbow lights in the garden
Hang your holiday rainbow lights in the garden
And I’ll, I’ll bring a nice icy drink to you
Let me come over, I can waste your time, I’m bored
Invite me to the war, every night of the summer
And we’ll play G.I. blood (?), G.I. blood (?)
We’ll stand by the pool, we’ll throw out our golden arms
Darlin’, can you tie my string?
Killers are callin’ on me
My angel face is fallin’, feathers are fallin’ on my feet
Darlin’, can you tie my string?
Killers are callin’ on me
We don’t know if the magazines represent ammunition or print mags; we don’t know if the holiday is Christmas or Independence Day; we don’t know if the war is metaphorical or Iraq; we don’t know if the string to be tied is real or imaginary. In the song “Karen” on Alligator, the character mentions “black feathers falling on my feet” to describe his struggle for identity, and since our hero’s “angel face is fallin'” he certainly is experiencing “Another un-innocent, elegant fall/Into the un-magnificent lives of adults.” If all this sounds like it falls into the category of ambiguous, you’re right—and I can’t think of a better way to end an album centered on human struggle than ending it in a flurry of ambiguity.
Boxer is a marvelous piece of work, but it’s also rather humbling. We waste so much of life pretending to be someone we’re not, smarter than we are and more secure than our inner anxieties would reveal. The songs on Boxer expose those tendencies with undeniable force. If there’s a takeaway message from Boxer, it’s this: stop pretending, stop hiding, see the world for what it truly is rather than what you would like it to be and engage with the real world of people who are just as scared as you and are aching for authentic connection.
Interesting look at one of my favourite albums. One thing I love about The National is the drums. Bryan Devendorf is excellent.
I never heard of the band anymore, but this is an amazingly well written review. I also love how deeply you get into the context of the era.
Personally, I’m indifferent to the Grammys. Art is so subjective anyway, and getting pissed off over Grammy’s choices, or any award’s, is a waste of time. I have nothing personally against the Grammy voters or any artist winning the award, good for them. And I’m happy with the victories that some artists I love had in Grammys (Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Beatles, João Gilberto), but the Grammys are certainly not the reason why I love those artists to begin with. It comes from myself, my tastes. And considering how art and tastes are so diverse, and how it’s impossible to be loved by everyone, I prefer to see such award ceremonies as a silly fun exercise rather than any definitive statement of “best”, because there can be no such definitive statement from anyone, it’s ultimately pointless. This is also how I approach “best-of” lists, just as a fun and valid representation of someone else’s taste, and nothing to be judgemental about. I find that to be the most respectful and open-minded approach in general, to the diversity of art and the respect towards each individual, how nothing is actually overrated or underrated.
On another matter, I’m happy to see your clarification of what “pretentious” means. It is one of the most misused words out there. People use the word “pretentious” to mean “ambitious work whose artistic vision I don’t like”. People don’t say “pretentious” to mean that an artist has failed to do his/her artistic vision due to skill limitations, they just use the word “pretentious” as a way to express that they don’t like an artist’s vision to begin with. Fair enough not being a fan of a person’s artistic vision, but that doesn’t make the artist pretentious, and I always respect every artist passionately trying to make what he/she loves, every artist fighting for their artistic vision, because that’s what art is about. It’s about making what you love, what you believe in, rather than worrying about pleasing everyone (which is impossible to begin with, considering how subjective art is). And that obviously includes pretentious artists as well, I’m happy for anyone trying to make their vision happen even when hopelessly out-of-depth. So, I don’t really see pretentiousness as a bad thing really, unless the artist is arrogant and feels superior to others due to his/her artistic vision. But a person doesn’t need to be pretentious to be an asshole really.
On a random matter, considering your mention of classic videogames: do you consider videogames to be art? I say yes.
Cheers, I wish you the best!
If by art you mean “fine art,” defined as “products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content,” I certainly consider some video games to qualify as art. Most video games are more along the line of “applied art,” which means they may be fun to play but lack aesthetic content. The other day a friend with a PS5 took me on a tour through the Final Fantasy 7 Remake and it was definitely an aesthetic experience on multiple levels. I prefer to play RPGs primarily because they’re more likely to have aesthetic appeal.
Interesting reply! I think games are definitely art, no doubt. Lots of great games are pure escapist, mindless fun, and there is nothing wrong with that, but there are some games that prove that the medium can do something deeper, different than simple pure fun. “Fine art” per say, though I generally try to avoid that term due to its common elitist use..
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask comes to my mind as an example of games as art. It really uses the interactive nature of the medium to truly make you feel like you are in a mission trying to save people from the end of the world while you are stuck in a Groundhog Day cycle of 3 days, it has really effective atmosphere, some parts have an inspired aesthetic that transcends even the huge graphical limitations of its era. All the people are resignated to the end of the world, trying to just spend their last days with their beloved ones, and only you can change that, only you can save those people. It is dark, but the final message of the game is really of hope and valuing life, even the most mundane parts of it, specially considering that one of the side-quests in the game is reunite a couple for them to be happy before the end of the world.
Cheers, I wish you the best! And again, congratulations for your often really great writing!
In my first paragraph, I made a typo. Where I wrote “I never heard of the band anymore, but this is an amazingly well written review”, I meant “I had never heard of the band before, but this is an amazingly well written review”.
I read the above concise and clear definition of pretentious and my thought was: this is what I do most times I set to create something: to seek to exceed what I know I can do. Now sometimes I surprise myself (and readers/listeners?) and make something “successful” from those efforts, but given the nature of that first-mover goal, often not.
I can see why this plausible outcome produces less useful and pleasurable art. It about has to, doesn’t it? I tell myself that’s no crime, and I try to not feel guilty about those results.
Now back to the National. Does one suppose they start most every project and composition with the idea that they know how to accomplish it, that it’s “in their wheelhouse” or whatever your cliche is for aiming beneath the “beyond this point are monsters?” If so, are they just lucky in beating the odds? Do they underestimate themselves and so think they are aiming higher than what they can do, when they are not doing so?
You left out a key phrase: “largely motivated by an inflated sense of self-importance,” or what George Harrison referred to as “the ego-problem.” True creativity is always about pushing beyond one’s limits; the act of creation is a voyage of discovery in which the artist is fully immersed—the focus is on the creation. A pretentious “artist” is driven primarily by ego needs and possessed with arrogant over-confidence in their abilities—the focus is on maintaining self-concept: “I’m great, therefore anything I do must be great.” (See also “Look at Me, I’m Wonderful” by the Bonzos). While you can never shut out the ego entirely, great art is nearly always characterized by a degree of personal detachment. It’s kinda like Keats’ concept of “negative capability,” a state where the artist embraces uncertainty (discovery) over certainty.
As for The National, the creative period that resulted in Boxer was by all accounts full of tension and conflict. I don’t think any of the band members were contaminated with certainty about a specific outcome—they were immersed in discovery, growing as musicians and collaborators. They pushed themselves beyond previous limits; they sensed they could take things to another level and went for it. I think the best thing about The National (so far) is they’ve entered each project without fully knowing where they were going or how to accomplish it.
My next two posts inadvertently deal with this subject—one where I-me-mine got in the way; one with a rather unusual creative process.
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