Admittedly my love affair with the national was not at first sight, they are not an easy band to get into. Some may call their albums impenetrable, others will use terms like ‘a grower’ or ‘a required taste’, I personally prefer to use the term ‘rewarding’.
I still owe money to the money to the money I owe. I never thought about love when I thought about home…The floors are falling down from everybody I know.
My first of their album’s was High Violet, which is now one of my favourite albums ever, but at the time was merely home to a song of their’s I quite liked: Bloodbuzz Ohio. Bloodbuzz is a complex song with catchy vocals. It also features some of the finest lyrics of post 2008 recession era America, however back in 2010 it was the melodies that drew me. I tried a few of the other tracks a few times, but found them very hard to get into. I didn’t really listen to albums back then, nor did I pay too much attention to words.
I have only two emotions, careful fear and dead devotion. I can’t get the balance right with all my marbles in the fight
Skip forward a few years and I started listening to Trouble Will Find Me, quite a lot. The more I listened the better it got, I was hooked on ‘Graceless’, on ‘I need my Girl’ and on ‘Sea of Love’. I bought the record on vinyl, and it probably remains my most played. I started to notice the power behind Matt Berninger’s lyrics. They spoke of a broken man: self loathing, self doubting and self reflective.
Someone send a runner, through the weather that I’m under, for the feeling that I lost today
I revisited High Violet. I met the gems ‘Lemonworld’ and ‘Afraid of Everyone’, and played the song ‘England’ over and over and over. I saw them live in Boston and it was quite possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. The Dessner brothers’ battling guitars (played slightly off from each other to create an reverb effect) and Bryan Devendorf’s drums (another key element to their distinctive sound) were played to perfection, whilst Matt Berninger paced the stage with a chain smoker’s disposition, arriving to the microphone only when it was time to deliver a verse. At times his voice was delicate, other times it was screaming, but the show as a whole was one continuous release of emotion, exposed in front of 10,000 people. Matt ploughed into the crowd, as is customary during National gigs, during ‘Terrible Love’, I ruffled his hair, my transition to fan boy was complete. I was by this point fully immersed in the back catalogue of the band; ‘Mr November’ became the slightly unusual choice of the song I want played at my funeral. “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November”
Oh, you wouldn’t want an angel watching over, surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t wanna watch. Another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults
Which brings me to Boxer, the band’s 2007 release, and the stage of my life that I’m in right now. Boxer speaks to me as someone who’s mourning the end of my time at uni, my fear of slipping into a dull all-consuming job and losing my youth.
Take ‘Apartment Story’. “Oh, we’re so disarming, darling, everything we did believe is diving, diving, diving, diving off the balcony” sings Berninger of him and his lover. The hopes and dreams you hold whilst you’re young can so easily slip as you descend into a high-pressure long-hours job: “Tired and wired, we ruin too easy. Sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave”. The song ends with a late twenties quarter (or third) life crisis: “We’ll stay inside ‘till somebody finds us, do whatever the TV tells us, stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz for days”, a prospect which I’m all too scared of realising one day.
Along similar lines ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ details the lonely life of a young out-of-uni investment banker: “Showered and blue-blazered. Fill yourself with quarters” Berninger instructs. The banker in question feels distant from his former self (“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 far away, as long as you look removed”) and subsequently drifts and becomes unrecognisable to past friends (“You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends when you pass them at night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights”).
We miss being ruffians, going wild and bright. In the corners of front yards, getting in and out of cars. We miss being deviants
Drifting from friends is also the subject matter of Green Gloves : “Falling out of touch with all…my friends are somewhere getting wasted. Hope they’re staying glued together. I have arms for them”, a feeling I certainly can emphasise with, especially with respect to old friends from secondary school, some of whom perhaps I’ll never see again. Returning to the theme of becoming run down and tired ‘Racing Like a Pro’ details the situation of another young go-getter “Your mind is racing like a pro now. Oh my god, it doesn’t mean a lot to you. One time you were a glowing young ruffian. Oh my god, it was a million years ago”.
Turn the light out say goodnight, no thinking for a little while. Let’s not try to figure out everything at once.
But perhaps the strongest and most powerful track is the opener ‘Fake Empire’. Here Matt Berninger laughs in the face of the idea anyone actually knows what’s going on, that people who claim they have their live’s sorted actually do, and that the American way of life is destined to succeed. “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”. What’s ever more poignant is that the song was recorded only a year before the 2008 recession brought the west to its knees. It shares a large amount of themes (the loss of principles and identity as you enter the world of work, an unknowing of what to do in life, a fear of the future, and the whole climate that led up to the crash) with the book NW by Zadie Smith, a novel which I strongly encourage anyone and everyone to read.
The album offers other delights, mainly on the theme of love and awkward relationships. “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?” Matt Berninger asks on ‘Slow Show’. Many albums discuss love, and this album does better that the vast majority (see also ‘Ada’ and ‘Start a War’), but on the topic of young people being stripped of their personalities by the high pressure rat race world we live it the surpasses any other I have heard.