Every once in a while, an artist comes along that manages to break through my self-imposed set of rules regarding the intricate relationship between the seasons and music. Everything about The National’s music tells me that I should be listening to this during late autumn as the light goes low and the days chill and shorten--or in the actual dark days of winter--or at a minimum during a long stretch of rain-soaked grey days in spring. But definitely not in the lush, long days of summer.
There is nothing about The National’s albums—either lyrically or musically that says summer. There is nothing that you could really be described as up-tempo (there is some driving pieces, but nothing that makes you consider getting up to dance). That might be just as much because there is nothing you would really describe as upbeat. Certainly nothing you could describe as light-hearted and carefree. And yet, here we are in July and I cannot stop listening to this band, which I have been for the last several months straight.
My listening started with the band’s fourth album Boxer and was quickly followed with the recently released High Violet—both of which deserve attention. Both albums share certain qualities.
Musically, there is plenty of mid-tempo to slow-paced tunes, many of which build with more and more guitar and keyboard being layered on as the song progresses. Drummer Bryan Devendorf’s work is critical and often adds contrast with a faster-paced, rhythmic phrasing underneath, although most often with a muted tom-tom sound than any in your face rock-drumming—and cymbals are close to nonexistent with the exception of the hi-hat. I am not sure if anyone every gets above the middle-C register on these tunes. Lead singer Matt Berninger’s voice is deep, gravelly and ominous and most songs frame that tone and character. That said, one of the things that make these albums (and they are most definitely albums) so solid is that while there is a certain consistent sound through them, the songs are carefully and complexly built which gives the album a rich variation which is probably why I keep listening.
Lyrically, Berninger is clearly working through a bit of angst in these songs. I don’t mean that in a simple way as these songs aren’t overblown teenage angst (not surprisingly, since these guys aren’t teenagers—as if that stops other songwriters from adolescent obsession). Know this seems more driven by emotional struggles of everyday life in young-but-aging-adulthood—relationships, careers, self-identity and generally trying to figure out navigate life in a material and superficial world toward emotional happiness. But this is also where the albums differ for me.
Boxer seems much more concerned with figuring out one’s place in life, careers and accepting (or not) the long stretch of adulthood and all the responsibilities that entails. Not surprisingly given the career paths of these guys, much of that seems to focus on the grind and rat-race of work life and the status chasing that permeates so much of professional life. The
High Violet is a more personal album in many ways. There is still that sense of running from the professional rat-race, but the songs here seem to have more on an inner-focus than the previous album. Songs look both forward and backward searching for answers in relationships, family and share a general self-reflective assessment. But here again, don’t go looking for a writer that has solved theses questions. The lyrics of these songs are much more about process than answers and The National seems quite happy to live there.
Now, I don’t want to leave with the impression that these albums are just dark and depressing. Not true. They are wonderfully crafted musically and lyrically and leave listeners fully engaged and plenty to chew on--like any good piece of art should.