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
Since 2007, the National have been one of our favorite bands. Together, we’ve seen them perform live at least eight times, playing to hundreds of people in a park to fifty in a small room in the Hudson Valley. We’ve posed for photos with the singer, Matt Berninger, and spent one evening in a giddy haze after he passed us one of his (many) half-consumed bottles of white wine from the stage. As siblings, the band has been one of the things we’ve bonded over the most, and something we’ve enjoyed sharing with each other. For us, they are a band for real New Yorkers: their songs capture the beauty and frustration of being liberal city dwellers, sharing tiny spaces with other people while feeling strangely removed from most of those around us. We really did grow up with them -- ten years is a long time to like anything -- and because the band has had such a pronounced role in our lives individually, but also as sisters, we thought it only made sense that we write about them together.
Last month the National released their 7th studio album, which is one of their best, and are now performing it to sold-out shows around the world. The National are one of the most beloved bands but most people have never heard of them, or at least couldn’t identify them by name. Considered to be “critical darlings” after their release of Alligator in 2005, they have a devoted fan following and success that has dumbfounded the corporate music industry. How could a group of middle-aged men who perform “sad sack songs” about very grown up things sell out arenas and pull in a fan base that includes teenage girls and rock and roll dads? How could any band get a stadium of artists, bankers, tech geeks, fashionistas, and parents to sing together, “I was afraid, I’d eat your brains.”
The first song I ever listened to by the National was “Karen” from the Alligator album. I was 16 and reading a short story about a couple driving through a post-apocalyptic America, so it was only natural that the refrain should get stuck in my head:
But whatever you do, listen, you better wait for me
No, I wouldn’t go out out alone into America.
I gradually got to know the rest of Alligator, drawn instantly to the ebullient numbers like “Lit Up” and “Mr. November” before latching onto the melancholic and arguably more meaningful songs such as “Baby We’ll Be Fine” and “Friend of Mine.” And I think this is emblematic of what it means to fall in love with the National. The antithesis of pop, this isn’t a band that grabs you by the shoulders and sweeps you right in. They’re a creeping presence, beginning as a faint hum in the back of your mind before absorbing you completely and becoming the only thing you can listen to.
If you’re like me and you care about lyrics more than music, having a song stuck in your head can be akin to physical pain. Top 40 tunes filter in easily thanks to their catchy beats, only to have the achingly generic words grinding against your skull on repeat for hours. But with the National, as with the other bands and musicians I have dearly loved (The Clash, The Shins and David Bowie, to name a few), having their lyrics stuck in your head is a pleasure because you’re constantly rediscovering and assigning new meaning to them. This is especially true for the National and their cryptic lines that can seem specific to Matt Berninger’s psyche but with enough ambiguity for individual resonance. You’re obligated to mentally chew on phrases like “I put on argyle sweater and put on a smile” (“Baby We’ll Be Fine) or “It’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me.” (“Lemonworld”)
I would argue that some of the National’s best lyrics are the ones that are deceptively banal because they stop you in your tracks and force you to reconsider what you just heard. Did he really just say that? Yes. And then - why? Prime examples include “I think everything counts a little more than we think,” (“Ada”) “Standing at the punch table swallowing punch” (“Slow Show”), or one of my personal favorites, “Everywhere I am is just another thing without you in it.” (“Fashion Coat”) Imbued with a strong sense of the ridiculous, these lines open up into a bigger picture of social satire, anxiety or self-deprecation.
The National have accompanied me on innumerable long drives and train rides, and like Proust’s madeleine so many of their songs have crystallized specific memories ranging from the trite to the profound. “City Middle” is me lying in the nurse’s office in high school, grateful to have a dark room to rest alone. “Wake Up Your Saints” is the summer before I went to college. “Gospel” is me waking up one morning and realizing I had a new person in my life. These days I might go months without listening to the National while discovering new artists, but I do this with the certainty that they’ll never grow stale; they’ve become too ingrained in my life.
The political dimension to the National’s music was never heavy-handed, but some of their older lyrics seem particularly prescient today: “I’m not stupid, I swear/ I read the foreign news to understand my nation,” (“Fashion Coat), or “We’re half awake in our fake empire” (“Fake Empire”/ Boxer). I have yet to immerse myself in Sleep Well Beast but I’m excited to see where they take their subtle yet poignant commentary. We may be living in the age of uncertainty, but, thankfully, we still have the National.
Along with rapid fire drums and classical guitar, Berninger’s baritone is one of the band’s signature sounds. It’s hard to imagine the songs having the tension that they do without his voice and its seemingly endless battle between a hoarse whisper and a scream. Internet trolls and music critics alike have accused him of not being “a true vocalist,” and I suspect that Berninger’s imperfections as a singer add another layer of sincerity to the music. One of the most powerful of their lines isn’t sung, but spoken in a whisper tinged with confusion and sadness:
Hey, are you awake?
Yeah I'm right here
Well can I ask you
Their sincerity is one of the things that I love about them the most. The band doesn’t posture, they don’t pretend to be anything they aren’t. Berninger himself has said that he started wearing suits on-stage because he’s too old for “sexy v-neck t-shirts.”
The lyrics are often what makes the National so polarizing to listeners: either you love the metaphoric stories and bizarre, abstract references, or you think they’re pretentious: So you swear, you just saw a feathery woman, Carry a blindfolded man through the trees. We lean towards the former. He is arguably one of the best lyricists today, because he’s able to do so much with such simplicity. A little line like “You always knew I’d do this someday” is so immediate and yet also so hard to grasp.
Berninger’s lines use repetition in a way that might make creative writing professors wince, but the result is undeniably powerful. Repetition makes the lines more visual, catchy, and again genuine. Real people repeat things to themselves over and over:
I have weird memories of you
Wearing long red socks and red shoes
I have weird memories
I have weird memories of you
On Sleep Well Beast, repetition of words has been partially replaced by the repetition of events, making the sadder stories even more devastating. Apologies are rehearsed, plans to change course keep derailing, and conversations that no one wants to have never end.
Why are we still out here?
Holding our coats
We look like children
Goodbyes always take us half an hour
Can't we just go home?
Sleep Well Beast brings the National full-circle, sort of the string between their earliest albums and today. Their albums have been stately (Boxer), desperate (Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers), self-mocking (Alligator), and Sleep Well Beast pays homage to the band’s past while taking them in a new direction.
Musically, the band has also done more with electronic music, notably on "Walk It Back" and "Sleep Well Beast." It reminds me so much of Radiohead, who up until now I had thought of as the only band that could truly blend together electronica, string and horn sections, and heavy drums.
From their eponymous first album to Trouble Will Find Me, I had the sense that Berninger was basqueing in the melodrama of modern life. Those earlier songs explored and celebrated challenging moments and dark thoughts, and imagined even darker ideas from the safety of hope. Sleep Well Beast is different, and it seems that on this album, Berninger is now actually living the reality of the nightmares he had imagined earlier. Donald Trump is president (“Another man in a shitty suit, This must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for”), relatives are disappearing, and a marriage -- alluded to as his -- has imploded.
All catches up to me
All the time
And an ode to Donald Trump -