Relevant Rock: The Cathartic Power of The National

National 2The National is a band that plays a relentlessly dreary form of indie rock music. Most of their songs seem to come from an overcast climate dominated by cold, drizzly days. If this sounds unappealing, you would be wrong: The National’s music is compulsively listenable.

A growing number of people have been discovering this over the past eight years. The band’s critically acclaimed 2005 album, Alligator, put them on the map, cultivating a loyal following that grew steadily after the release of their 2007 album, Boxer, which was included on a variety of media outlet’s “Best of the Decade” lists. Then came 2010’s High Violet, which debuted at #3 on the charts despite being arguably their darkest album. On May 21st, the band released Trouble Will Find Me, which also debuted at #3.

The National’s addictive sound has been described as “baroque pop” or “art rock,” referring to the band’s fusion of the traditional drums, bass and guitar with classical elements including violin, cello and horns, with a particular emphasis on piano. All this serves as a well-curated template for lead singer and songwriter Matt Berninger, whose vocals are unlike anything else in popular music today. His voice is a low, resonant baritone that delivers lyrics in a methodical, workmanlike manner, virtually free of bluster. Berninger’s style resembles a slight drone or a more melodious version of Lou Reed. “Fake Empire,” the opening track of Boxer, is a fitting example of this as he relates inane trifles such as: “Picking apples, making pies/Put a little something in our lemonade and take it with us.” But in between each monotone verse, the chorus extracts itself: “We’re half awake in a fake empire.” It’s a bracing statement, simple yet stealthily potent as it is repeated in couplets.

The next song on Boxer is a showcase of the band at the height of their power. “Mistaken for Strangers” is a deadly serious and haunting track, driven by a propulsive beat by drummer Bryan Devendorf and atmospheric, grinding electric and bass guitars that form the embodiment of Berninger’s deft lyrics that suggest the self-absorbed rigors of keeping up appearances: “Cause you don’t mind seeing yourself in a picture/As long as you look far away/As long as you look removed.” The chorus seems to reflect on the impersonal nature of certain moments in modern life: “You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends/When you pass them at night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights.” And later: “Another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults.”

In the band’s following album, 2010’s High Violet, Berninger turns more toward self-examination, and the results aren’t pretty. “Sorrow,” the album’s second track, begins with this: “Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited, sorrow won.” And later: “I live in a city sorrow built/It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk.” Still, the song’s brisk percussion and guitar provide a bristling, quiet energy. A repeated line at the end of the chorus adds a different dimension: “I don’t wanna get over you.” It bestows a sense of aching romance, turning the overall effect into a kind of sorrowful comfort.

“Anyone’s Ghost” finds Berninger grappling with insecurity in an unstable relationship: “Didn’t want to be your ghost/Didn’t want to be anyone’s ghost.” The melody and cadence of the line make it an instantly memorable anthem about the desire to avoid conflict. Elsewhere, on “Lemonworld,” a striving for innocence and authenticity in a corrupt world is evoked. The song begins with a simple thought about how city life can feel like claustrophobic confinement: “So happy I was invited/Give me a reason to get out of the city. . . .Living and dying in New York it means nothing to me.” The joy of finding solace in a different kind of life comes through in the chorus: “You and your sister live in a lemonworld/I want to sit in and die.”

Toward the end of High Violet is “Conversation 16”; it’s a thing of beauty, a slinky groove of a song about the aspects of adulthood that torture Berninger. “I think the kids are in trouble,” he surmises. “Do not know what all the troubles are for.” And later: “I tell you miserable things after you are asleep.” Regret and tension emerge as well: “Meet our friends out for dinner/When I said what I said I didn’t mean anything/We belong in a movie/Try to hold it together ‘til our friends are gone.” Still, there’s hope in a desire to change: “I’ll try to be more romantic/I want to believe in everything you believe.”

Trouble Will Find Me by the National

Trouble Will Find Me by The National

The National’s latest record, Trouble Will Find Me, is another brooding collection of songs that combine Berninger’s perceptive confessions with stellar art rock. The opening track observes: “I should live in salt for leaving you behind,” but Berninger sings it in a higher than normal register, making it a moment of epiphany. The next song “Demons” is decidedly less positive, mostly serving as dark comedy: “When I walk into a room I do not light it up.” Elsewhere, on “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” Berninger does some astute self-analysis: “I have only two emotions, careful fear and dead devotion/I can’t get the balance right.”

With “Heavenfaced,” the sixth track on Trouble Will Find Me, the clouds open, even if only for a little while. The dreamlike melody of the piano-synthesizer that drives the song heightens the effect of Berninger’s hopeful aspirations: “Let’s go wait out in the fields with the ones we love.” The song becomes ascendant soon after, as his voice reaches a rare high register to proclaim: “We’ll all arrive in heaven alive.” The album ends on another bright spot. “Hard to Find” is a soothing balm, delving into the nature of past love: “What I feel now about you then, I’m just glad I can’t explain.” There’s a sense of the wisdom in cherishing what one had, but also the peace in letting it go: “Don’t know why we had to lose the ones who took so little space/We’re still waiting for the ease to cover what we can’t erase/I’m not holding out for you, but I’m still watching for the signs/If I tried you’d probably be hard to find.”

The value of music like this can be illustrated by exploring a number of different attributes. Arguably chief among them is its ability to provide catharsis to the listener. “Catharsis” has been defined as a kind of “purification” or “purgation” of the emotions through art. This “purgation” can come about simply by realizing that the artist is wrestling with the same emotions as you are: frustration, insincerity, awkwardness, sorrow, insecurity, confinement, longing, regret; but also romance, innocence, authenticity, joy. It’s an admission that before one can determine how things should be, one must first dig into how things are. This desire is universal; it’s what great art taps into through the lens of personal experience. Great music has the ability to transform these feelings into a sound.

This is what The National does so well. There’s a sense that the band is continually trying to enter more deeply into exploring personal failings as well as mysterious joys. It feels like an honest journey, markedly different from much of pop music’s impulsive tendency toward pure entertainment through sensual overload. The National’s music has the cinematic quality of a character study (rather than a summer blockbuster), where the main character’s journey becomes your own. It’s also rock that should be enjoyed like a fine scotch, powerful yet complex—in moderation, of course.

Dan Hart

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Dan Hart, a Catholic writer and rock and roll enthusiast. He currently maintains a blog on music at Beautiful Exile.

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  • James H, London

    Regret, or perhaps nostalgia, is the thread running through most of The National’s music. “the cinematic quality of a character study” – this.

    And I also agree that, while they are good, they have to be enjoyed in moderation. My brother can listen to them with finger-licking pleasure, but I tend towards depressive myself and can’t do it for too long.

    As an aside, one or two of their songs has been covered by folk rockers Mumford and Sons, which is quite a compliment.

  • Mikeheartstrong

    Good job Dan

  • Richard III

    Rockin’ post, Dan! I’ve never heard or heard of The National, but now I want get my hands (and ears) on an album!

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