The National gets it really right, after a while

My heart sank when I first heard the droning start – I’m tempted to say “onset” – of each of the first two songs on “High Violet”: “Terrible Love” (“It’s a terrible love that I’m walking with spiders”) and “Sorrow” (“Sorrow found me when I was young”). These sounded like Matt Berninger in the key of self-parody, as if he was proceeding from a disastrously wrong idea of what made him a good lyricist. He’s written about terrible love and sorrow so incisively, and so persistently, without ever saying either “terrible love” or “sorrow” (much less “walking with spiders”) that having him come out and declare these as his themes, in literally the first words of the first two songs songs, was kind of painful. For weeks, these songs stood like twin gargoyles (named Obvious and Gratuitous) over the entrance to “High Violet,” and thanks to the gargoyles, I couldn’t help looking at the new National album as some kind of crucible or ordeal. Then I did something that – child of the album era that I am – I normally resist. I just started skipping them. I don’t listen to them anymore, at all. I skip straight to track 3, “Anyone’s Ghost.” and now, shortened by two songs, “High Violet” is pretty great. I can’t get enough of it.

The best songs on “High Violet” come on differently from earlier National albums. They’re more likely to move from some explicitly withholding, melodically dampened and unresolved mood through earlier verses and then open into a kind of release or resolution in their choruses or, as in the fabulous Little Faith, in a single bridge verse. As usual for a Matt Berninger lyric, “Little Faith” seems to operate in those close emotional quarters where people are bound together by things like hostility and resignation and well, more resignation, along with some unacknowledged underlying affection that must be pretty strong to overcome all the hostility and resignation. Beyond that, it’s hard to say for sure. It’s pretty oblique, but it’s also strewn with little shards of menace like: “All our lonely kicks are getting harder to find/We’ll play nuns versus priests until somebody cries,” which, in the context, I love. And the bridge in “Little Faith” is just smashing, a genuine climax both melodically and lyrically (and, I’m guessing, thematically), with strings swirling and plucked to an almost Disneyish crescendo leading to this classic Berningerian nugget:

Don’t be bitter, Anna
I know how you think
You’re waiting for Radio City to sink
You’ll find commiseration in everyone’s eyes
The storm will suck the pretty girls into the sky

The man is a lyricist, by which I mean that the brickwork of his lines and verses, the internal rhythms and the rhymes and the momentum that builds through them, does tremendous work in making whole the meaning and impact of the words themselves. (Note the nice little braid of assonance and alliteration in the phrase “waiting for Radio City to sink.”)

In Bloodbuzz Ohio it’s a pair of choruses, or a single oddly linked chorus, that, repeated twice, does the work of melodic release. This chorus begins with another funny Berningerian image of a person drawn by nebulous natural forces into flight: “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees.” And the second part of this chorus, the last four of six lines (it’s like the chorus is a song within a song, an embedded dynamic of build and release), is again oblique but also just so mournful, so beautiful, that you really know what it means, even if you don’t. I have sung it in my head for entire days:

I still owe money to the money to the money I owe
I never thought about love when I thought about home
I still owe money to the money to the money I owe
All the floors are falling out from everybody I know

Another song that gets to me via a similar structure is Runaway, which is a really slow song, and whose chorus features Berninger lifting his voice and actually singing. This doesn’t sound promising on paper but it really works on some alternate means of scoring. Runaway is the closest in content to the great songs on “Boxer,” those little domestic dramas that come off as, like, surrealist Cheever of the middle-middle classes (less affluent, but just as drunk), people living imperfect lives, struggling to repair the damage they do to each other, to keep it together instead of running off after fantasies that will only embarrass them later, bleary-eyed people with a strangely clear-eyed take on how much there still is to lose. Anyway (deep breath), the first chorus of “Runaway” begins in this familiar, indeed suspiciously straightforward way (see above: gargoyles): “I won’t be no runaway, ‘cause I won’t run.” That’s pretty much Berninger 101, the man joined til death to the misery he knows against the misery he can only imagine (too well), but then the chorus ends:

We don’t bleed when we don’t fight
Go ahead, go ahead, throw your arms in the air tonight
We don’t bleed when we don’t fight
Go ahead, go ahead, lose our shirts in the fire tonight

This is a great example of how Berninger uses a kind of comic surrealism to take the air out of his own building somberness. The first line is nice, a little pat, a little melodramatic as a description of romantic stasis, but when he goes to illustrate it in the next line, you’re waiting for something, well, illustrative. Instead, he uses an image that’s a kind of synecdoche (that it seems intended as such is really what’s so funny) that removes you at least one step further from the metaphor it’s supposed to amplify than you were expecting. Instead of the fight, a couple fighting in some ambiguously passionate way, you get one of the principals, presumably Berninger’s unfortunate female partner, strutting around the living room with her arms raised in triumph like Muhammad Ali. This, apparently, is how life is breathed into a stale marriage in – what shall we call this place? – Ohio? Another piece of The National that I have lived with for entire sad-happy days.

Anyway, enough overinterpretation. I realize I have, in lame music-crit fashion, focused on the lyrics of “High Violet” to the neglect of the music. I would say more about the music, except I don’t know really know anything about music, as I suspect is the case with a lot of pop music critics. I will say, though, if I haven’t already, that in the parts I have pointed out, where the lyrics get really good, the music seems like it gets really good, too.