The National: Lit Up
I found The National in 2004, on an mp3 blog back when those were slightly harder to come by. Wasp Nest is basically just a vocal and some sleigh bells, but it froze a whole lake under me. Matt Berninger sounded like an Elvis man giving the Beatles a jealous look. There are lines from Wasp Nest, about skinny throats and pretty glasses, that seem diffident next to later stunners like Sauvignon fierce freaking out (1) and showered and blue-blazered/fill yourself with quarters (2). Now, in 2013, everyone knows a National song is supposed to sound like that. Berninger, as librettist, puts his weird, wild words atop finished or half-finished pieces of music that would be troubling and agog all on their own. The results are as restless and aggrieved as any band of the indie generation.
Berninger is not fully in the directorial mode of frontman—Curtis, Ferry, Morrison. If he’s a singer by trade, he’s really a writer by calling. The National’s best songs execute the altered states of the finest fiction. Others are exercises in pure language, betting it all on the isolated image. If many in the music media have mistaken Berninger for a man who repeats himself—birds, flowers, water, a morbid obsession with chastity—then he uses recurrence as a form of rapateta, of keeping himself talking. His characters, in their fancy fancy minds, don’t so much decide to talk to themselves as they are driven to it inexorably. The National’s catalogue is a surreal mumbo-jumbo of overlapping monologues. On pieces like City Middle, Brainy, Lemonworld and Don’t Swallow The Cap Berninger even resorts to hummy non-verbal filler, ensuring that some of the volumes in his head stay unread, at least aloud.
I have literary associations with The National that go back to my early obsession with Don DeLillo, who like Berninger started in one creative area, dormant by comparison, and moved to another, active by comparison. DeLillo channeled his advertising experience into his debut novel, Americana, which begins with a lunge: Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year. It’s the same intentional clatter of letters that makes the average DeLillo sentence, if there is such a thing, so curated. Near the beginning of The National’s fourth album, Boxer, is the line half awake/in a fake empire (3), which is straight from the DeLillo vein. Meanwhile on the new National record, Trouble Will Find Me, Berninger pronounces himself a television version of a person with a broken heart (4). DeLillo packed his early books with words that are physically similar, like television and version.
DeLillo was inspired by the tension and distance of jazz; Berninger uses lyrics the way a house or techno artist uses loops. I don’t know if Berninger is influenced by DeLillo at all, but both prefer to work in blocks of text that are more like body copy, befitting their backgrounds.
Another writer Berninger consciously or unconsciously mimics is F. Scott Fitzgerald, in whose imagination a man possessed both a brash navel and facetious whiskers, children pursued unintimidated fish, and below the balustrade a faded Buick cooked on the hotel drive. Those askew, astringent lines and two hundred like them are from Tender Is The Night, a novel that suits The National’s masterpiece, Boxer, like a pair of gloves. Boxer is finely stitched with GI blood (5) and fifteen blue shirts (6), empty tuxedos and grapes in mouths (7). Berninger is a master of both the odd, often nightmarish juxtaposition and the dazzling non sequitur. A feathery woman carries a blindfolded man thru the trees. A childhold game, nuns vs. priests, is tantamount to the most perilous of adult betrayals. Trophy wives wander, you and your sister live in a lemonworld, famous angels never come to England.
Rock lyrics, outside the parameters of mood and melody, are too liminal to qualify as literature—added to which, you wouldn’t want to read any short story Stephen Malkmus would write. The only literary figure Berninger actually names in his collected lyrics is Tennessee Williams, who has cameos on Alligator—I think I’m like Tennessee Williams/I wait for the click (8)—and Trouble Will Find Me, on which Don’t Swallow The Cap is a nod to the playwright’s disputed way of death. Berninger claims his characters are mostly extensions or versions of himself, but it’s not surprising that the one living-or-dead name he checks is the man who wrote a climactic scene involving death by children. If anybody in music could make cannibal kids seem whimsical, it’s Berninger.
Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, The National’s way-overlooked second album, is heavily in the tradition of John Updike, John Cheever, and the lesser bodies in the sweaty-realist diaspora. Song titles include Slipping Husband, Trophy Wife, and Sugar Wife and the content is appositely wicked and bleary. On the opening Cardinal Song, between fingerplucked guitar and a cello-led coda, Berninger ascribes votive qualities to a lovers’ summit—Never look her in the eye/never tell the truth; If she knows you’re paper/you know she’ll have to burn you; Let her treat you like a criminal/so you can treat her like a priest. Both blithe and bonny, it is The National’s absolute monument which the subsequent decade of fame cannot erode.
I went looking for The National’s influences pretty early on and very nearly struck out without today’s depth of internet. There was one interview, in 2006 maybe, in which Berninger said he liked The Cult. No offense, but no dice. Then he was late for another profile because he was busy watching The West Wing, so I started watching The West Wing. In talks leading up to Trouble Will Find Me, he praised the works of Roy Orbison, while the guitarist brothers Dessner mentioned Bob Dylan. The band was, by their own admission, trying not to be cool.
Orbison and Dylan are geniuses. But there was nothing in the rock tradition to prepare me for The National. Early media derided them as downmarket Silver Jews; as late as High Violet lazier writers were actually still calling it 80s-style mope-rock. Trouble Will Find Me is, finally, The National’s id record. In addition to Doors and Guns N’ Roses nods—all the LA women; I was teething on roses/I was in guns and noses (9)—and the Tennessee Williams testament, Berninger recs Nevermind and Let It Be—if you want to see him cry, that is (10). There’s a whole song (11) devoted to the death of Elliott Smith, complete with Berninger mimicking the late artist’s needle in the hay diction and expressing solidarity with Jennifer, Smith’s maligned girlfriend—Jennifer you are not the only reason. On another track, Berninger says Bona Drag is still on (12), which ought to make all the genre symbolists happy. Finally, on the album closer (13), he quotes Violent Femmes directly: you can all just kiss off into the air. An earlier reference to alligators in the sewers (14) I initially thought was a straight-up theft from the Radiohead B-side Fog. But given The National’s karma with that particular reptile, I’d ascribe tie to the runner.
(1) Baby We’ll Be Fine
(2) Mistaken For Strangers
(3) Fake Empire
(4) Pink Rabbits
(6) Racing Like A Pro
(8) City Middle
(10) Don’t Swallow The Cap
(12) Pink Rabbits
(13) Hard To Find