Shubham Gupta is currently a Young India Fellow at Ashoka University.
Begin: About Today(04:11)
Towards the end of the 2011 film Warrior, Brendan has his brother Tommy down in a rear naked choke in a desperate attempt to force him to submit. He had dislocated Tommy’s shoulder in the previous round and does not want to continue fighting. Their father, a recovering alcoholic, watches on from the sidelines as the estranged brothers are forced to confront each other in the final round of a mixed-martial arts tournament. The canvas is awash with sweat, blood and tears. Brendan knows he has Tommy locked down, but the emotional weight crushes him. He is begging him to submit, to give up, to just let go. The National had written About Today years ago, but each word finds its rightful place in this scene. As Tommy is close to giving up, Matt Berninger, the vocalist, sings “Tonight / You just close your eyes / And I just watch you / Slip away”.
The words are not hurried. They move cautiously, at a distance from each other. Then, as Tommy is close to tapping out, Brendan, clouded by emotion, tells him that he loves him. Berninger chooses this moment to sing “How close am I to losing you?”. The possibility of a response is drowned in a soft murmur of guitar and violin. As the brothers walk out arm in arm, seemingly reconciled, The National hold on to their speculation in the music. They know better than to expect happy endings.
The Guardian, as a way of introduction, has described The National as “America’s Radiohead”. They are much loved in their home country, where they play
sold-out shows in both arenas and art galleries with aplomb. The most direct way to describe the band’s style is dark, broody, and artful. “I love to make songs out of some of those shadows – you know, some of the things you lie awake thinking about”, Berninger has said in the past. This is apparent from the quality of the lyrics that he writes. His baritone is carried by the music from two sets of brothers. Identical twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner are the band’s guitarists, while Bryan and Scott Devendorf play drums and bass respectively. All four are multi-instrumentalists. Matt only has his voice. “Well, can I ask you about today?”, he pleads, hesitant.
The National have been making music for a long time. Berninger and Scott Devendorf first met in 1999 as students of graphic design at the University of Cincinnati and formed Nancy, a lo-fi garage band. After performing a few gigs – an experience that they have referred to as “terrifying and terrible” – they came together with the other members to form the band we now know as The National. Their self-titled 2001 debut and the follow-up in 2003, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, were released on their own label and garnered very little public attention. About Today features on Cherry Tree, an extended play that came out in 2004. The song was an early indicator of the kind of themes that would follow in the band’s repertoire. The composition is ethereal, nodding in direction to the classical roots of the Dessner twins. It builds up a faint glimmer of hope as the lyrics take their time and look around for answers. By the four-minute mark, Berninger has no strength left. “How close am I to losing you?”, he had wondered aloud many times, but at the very end, he omits the final “you”. In a single heartbreaking moment, it is over. The music gives up too, disappointed. There is only silence.
Next: Slow Show (04:08)
The National do not make music for house parties. They do, however, make songs about running away from them. Slow Show is a story that begins and ends in our narrator’s head. The gathering which he finds himself in at the beginning does not warrant peace or peaceful drinking – Berninger is “swallowing punch”. In one way or the other, he wants to be away. One thought leads to the other. The realization that he “made a mistake in my life today” escalates him to the conclusion that everything he loves “gets lost in the drawers”. He wants to go over to the beginning, to start it all over. Or home. The first traces of a love song begin to emerge. “I wanna hurry home to you / Put on a slow, dumb show for you”, he sings.
After Cherry Tree EP, The National signed to Beggars Banquet Records after realizing that running a label was not allowing them to focus on producing new music. This is when the band first started gaining public attention, with the release of their follow-up albums, Alligator(2005) and Boxer(2007). Among the extensive touring and critical acclaim from the likes of NME and Pitchfork, there was a singular word that began to be associated with the band’s albums – “grower”. A slow-burn band that reveals itself gradually to the listener who is generous with their time and patience.
Berninger’s astute lyricism and Bryan Devendorf’s complex drum rhythms, in particular, come back to you long after the song is over. The National are an extremely clever band who have an unnatural precision about the way they go about things. They are not a band you listen to in a hurry. You allow them to take over and put on a slow show.
Slow Show is a popular wedding song. The chief reason for this is the key change at the 2:30 mark that clinically splits the song into two. From a punch-fuelled internal monologue about wanting to run away from a party, it shifts to an exposition of his reasons to hurry home to his lover. “You know I dreamed about you / For twenty-nine years before I saw you”. It is a simple, one-line justification that Berninger repeats like a chant, perhaps intoxicated by more than just alcohol at this point. His voice is more assured, changing from drunken rumbling to something more sombre, dulcet. The music changes too, with the piano taking centrestage, repeatedly playing a haunting melody, until fade-out. It is one of the few The National songs that is decidedly romantic and upfront about it. The band, however, advise against using it at weddings, because of a reference to Berninger’s penis. But the know that they will be unheard, and in good humour, tell their fans to “have fun watching grandma and grandpa dance to me singing about my penis”. Romance is not dead.
End: I Need My Girl (04:05)
Matt Berninger is a married man. His wife, Carin Besser, is a writer who used to work for The New Yorker. Given Berninger’s propensity to speak what is on his mind, The National’s lyricism over the years can offer to be an indicator of the troubles and joys of his married life. On I Need My Girl, he is direct. Never mind his friends joking about him looking taller. “I can’t get my head around it / I keep feeling smaller and smaller”, he laments. The sense of claustrophobia from the earlier songs comes back again. The world is closing in around him. There is too much noise, too many ‘other’ people. He knows that he’s not been the perfect husband or father, not being there for his wife and daughter in the complete sense of things, giving less than his half. “I know I was a 45 percenter then”, he admits. He is distraught and lost. He needs his girl.
In the twelve years since the release of Boxer, The National have wriggled their way out of the underbelly and firmly established their place as monopolistic purveyors of a drunken melancholy that is both anxious and world-shattering. Their sense of humour is intact, and comes into play in their live shows and idiosyncratic antics. How else would you describe them playing Sorrow (“sorrow found me I was young / sorrow waited, sorrow won”), a song off of High Violet (2010), for six hours straight as part of an art installation? Barack Obama is a self-confessed fan. An instrumental version of Fake Empire (“We’re half-awake in a fake empire”) was of a part of his campaign video during the 2008 presidential elections. His Spotify playlist of his favourite songs from 2017 featured The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness, a reflection of both his thoughts on the current political landscape and his surprisingly astute taste in music. Now Grammy winners and festival headliners, The National sit comfortably in an armchair, caressing a drink and enjoying the view.
The overarching theme in a lot of music that The National make seems to be a quest for solitude. Even when singing about love, they complement it by referencing isolation, always. I Need My Girl featured on their sixth studio album, Trouble Will Find Me (2013). He’s at a party again, and not surprisingly, “it’s full of punks and cannonballers”. Even when he yearns for home and love, the creeping sense of self-doubt fills him up again, as he feels smaller and smaller, unable to contain the complexities of relationships within him. Just like in About Today, Berninger needs very few words to capture his vulnerabilities. He lays himself bare, and the listener is in on the secret. I Need My Girl has recently been featured on the first season of You, a new Netflix production about a bookshop manager who gets (very disturbingly) obsessed with one of its customers. With this sudden interest, the band has opened itself up to a whole new generation of listeners. The National are, however, one of those things that you want to love in secret, all for yourself. When they sing about their desires and failures, they sing about yours too. It is a drunken conversation with a lover late at night, not to be revisited or talked about with the entire world. It is a conundrum that has no end. For now, the music plays on.