big divorce energy
hi, friends. this is an essay about The National’s new album. The National are my favorite band, which I’ve written about previously-- if you’ve never listened to them and don’t know what their whole deal is, that essay is likely a better intro than this one, although you can definitely read and get stuff out of this one if you’ve never listened to their music, have no intention of ever doing so, or have never even heard of them until right now. I meant to send this on Father’s Day, but then it kind of got away from me, so here we are. Pieces of this are part of something larger that I’m working on, so if it seems a little fragmented or incoherent or not fully pulled-together yet, that’s why. Anyway, here’s my favorite band. cw: dads, divorce (this sounds like I’m kidding, but genuinely, a lot of this is about dads and divorce and I know those topics aren’t the easiest for many people).
Matt Berninger isn’t divorced. When The National, the band for whom Berninger is lead singer and primary lyricist, announce a new album, their fans respond with tweets all making slightly different versions of the same joke: “I can’t believe I didn’t plan in advance to be going through a painful divorce when the new National album dropped so that I could truly appreciate it,” “how has that one man been going through the same divorce for fifteen years,” and so on. Divorce is The National’s true musical genre. But none of them are divorced.
They’re a band playing desultory, exhausted, self-pitying songs about experiences in interior rooms, about the ongoing resignations and failures of courage between people who are pretty much fine, actually. Their work includes songs with titles such as “Guest Room,” and “Turtleneck.” Berninger’s voice, with its desultory baritone, sounds like the bar next to a marriage counselor’s office. The exact feeling of a National song is the part of that episode of Mad Men where Don Draper reads one (1) Frank O’Hara poem. Despite being a bunch of dudes with guitars who now play gigantic sold-out venues, they exist on roughly the same frequency as the novels of Updike or Cheever (the second of whom is referenced by name on 2017’s Sleep Well Beast), quietly concerned with the glossy surfaces atop our alienation from ourselves. Their songs chronicle wholly survivable catastrophes; they land like a long talk in a car parked in the driveway of a suburban home late at night. Their whole onstage person is that of a man eternally one drink away from starting every sentence with “my wife.”
Berninger does talk about his wife a lot, since she frequently collaborates with the band, and has written significant portions of their lyrics, including many songs on the latest album, I Am Easy to Find. Carin Besser has also never been married to anyone other than Berninger. She has also never been divorced. The four other members of the band are all also married; none is now going through, nor ever has gone through, a divorce. Which leads one to ask: Is The National just a bunch of scammers?
Then again, you don’t have to have actually, legally ended a marriage to have Big Divorce Energy. I know plenty of people in their first marriages and people who have never been married at all who have serious divorce energy, and I know plenty of people who have in fact been through one or more divorces who have little to no divorce energy. When I first started listening to The National, I assumed their music was a glimpse into their lives; I assumed Berninger must be in the middle of his marriage falling apart. But, as their latest record highlights, this band itself is an invention and their Big Divorce Energy is for show, fiction and not autobiography.
Perhaps more than any other genre of art, more even than poetry, rock and pop music are supposed to be autobiographical. We have been taught to assume that we are digging into the singer’s quirks and strife and secrets, that the person standing up on stage is talking about their own immediate and verifiable experiences, real places and people and names. This assumption may come from the culture of celebrity around these artists, or from the first-person direct-address conventions of a pop song, but it means that any band in this genre, especially one that gains any kind of fame, has to reckon with the assumption that everything they record or perform is a diary entry.
A hallmark of The National’s music is their awareness of these expectations. At the show I most recently attended, Berninger introduced the song “Hey Rosey,” by telling us “my wife wrote this song,” explaining that he had assumed it was about him, asked her about it, and found out it wasn’t about him at all. “So this is for whoever the hell she wrote it about,” he said, resignedly. Jokes like this abound at their shows. The National seem to be aware of their status as the headliners for divorce and marital strife, and they seem to find it kind of hilarious. Their music and performance style addresses their audience’s hunger for their secrets, for the dirty little details of the life of the person standing up onstage singing.
In 2010 I went by myself to see to see The National play The Olympia in Paris, late in the High Violet tour, at the gathering-dark back-edge of November a few days before Thanksgiving. The show was wild, as much as a show by bunch of dudes who all looked like dads before they even turned thirty and whose music focuses on what a friend called “wine bar problems” can ever actually be wild. The National have since then talked extensively about this moment on this particular tour, and how it was part of what led to the band unofficially breaking up for a while. The ongoing tension and disagreements that define this group’s dynamic and have produced a lot of their best work had been exacerbated by ceaseless touring and ceaseless partying. By the time the end of that tour limped across Europe they all basically hated each other, and got through shows mainly by getting absolutely shit-faced at them, which resulted in weird, maudlin, wine-soaked sets where occasionally Berninger forgot the lyrics and just kind of swayed at the microphone until he remembered to sing something. Of course, for superfans like me, this was exactly what we wanted from The National, the ride for which we had bought the ticket. It was so incredibly divorced.
During the show at the Olympia, Berninger went through two bottles of wine. He got the cork stuck in the second one, and, between songs, borrowed a drumstick to dislodge it, causing white wine to momentarily spray all over stage; this was perhaps the only National show that’s ever had a splash zone. An equally messy thing that happened was that he played “Available,” one of the nastiest and best tracks from their very nasty and very great sophomore album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. Before starting the song, he looked up into the balcony - the band had been whispering all night about somebody in the audience, and I assumed it was some ex of his. He addressed himself to the spot at which they’d all been furtively pointing and said, as a way of introducing the song, “I just want you to know-- Helene, this was never about you.”
I mean, it wasn’t me. Helene isn’t even my name, not quite, and I wasn’t anywhere near where he was pointing. Extreme fandom plays a trick in which one feels unreasonably close to strangers one admires, but I had never met anyone in this band and probably never will. They didn’t know me; I didn’t know them. It just happened they’d said a name that was almost my name. It isn’t even an uncommon name, and it’s less uncommon if you’re in France. But the statement felt so profoundly, hilariously personal, in the same way that all of the band’s music has always felt profoundly, insultingly, hilariously personal to me, that I nevertheless believed for a minute that drunk Matt Berninger had broken some fourth wall of reality in order to give me a stern-talking to about my over-identification with his songs. Because I did, and still do, think every one of their songs is about me, and the lead singer himself would have to step to the microphone and directly tell me that this isn’t the case before I would relinquish that belief about this band.
Speaking of The National, last Sunday was Father’s Day, which rolled out the usual firehose of sincerity and trauma that family-centric holidays bring. But it also offered its own very particular flavor of discomfort, the stuttering, tense parade of jokes and almost jokes about hot dads, dads we want to fuck. People posted pictures of their partners rather than their dads and either actually captioned the pictures “daddy” or captioned them something that might as well have said it even if it didn’t. People posted photos of their dads from when they were young and then other people made kidding-but-not-kidding jokes about wanting to fuck everyone else’s dad. I’m only recently old enough that the awkwardness has an added layer in which male friends post what can only be described as thirst traps of themselves holding their kids, which suddenly makes me realize that “dad” is far and away the easiest available thirst trap pose for straight men and the only one many of them can or will ever access. Holding his kid while looking at a camera is the straight man’s version of wearing a white bikini on an expensive beach.
A holiday about dads, like everything else about dads, is uncomfortably sexual, unable to detach the familial from the sexual. We lack useful, non-traumatic stories about women’s relationships with their fathers, the kind of stories that provide or celebrate healthy narrative models for these relationships, because as a culture we both refuse to allow this relationship to not be sexual, and refuse to interrogate the ways in which it has been sexualized. Instead, our focus on dads is nervous and horny; the only acceptable idea of dad is always someone else’s dad.
Dads are funny because the concept of Dad is awkward, balanced between several irreconcilable feelings: Being tired at the fifth hour of a Bruce Springsteen concert or two-thirds of the way through a hike; being embarrassed by someone you love because you love them; the thing politicians are trying to make you feel when they talk about having a beer with you; the feeling when you see that photo of young Stalin and feel horny and then remember that it’s Stalin. Dads are a wholly incoherent concept, which is probably part of why they’re inherently and unfortunately sexual. Father’s Day is an extremely divorced holiday because almost all dads, even the ones who aren’t divorced and never have been, are at least a little bit divorced by virtue of being dads. Dad is an extremely divorced concept.
Matt Berninger is a dad, actually, as in he actually has an actual daughter, but that’s relatively incidental to the way in which he’s a Dad, in the same way that the fact that he and his wife have only been married to each other since 2007 has nothing to with the fact that he’s very divorced. The National are a dad band, which is separate from the fact that every member of the band is an actual father to at least one actual child, and they’re an uncomfortably horny band, in part because they’re all such dads. The fictionally divorced man playing and writing and singing these songs is always deeply concerned with weird sex and sexual hang-ups, caught up in his sexuality like a sea lion tangled in a microphone cord. Their music and their whole thing could be seen as a direct confrontation with the way our culture has permanently sexualized the tired, uncool, divorced dad. Sex is awkwardly omnipresent in their music, even when it seems like they would prefer it wasn’t, which is pretty much always.
The feeling a song by The National offers is the feeling when an emotionally withholding man finally opens up and shares his emotions with you. It’s the thing where a man acts like complaining to you about his relationship problems is a way to tell you that you’re special. In reality, this is never a genuine connection; it’s always just the piece of food in a glue trap. But in the moment it can feel like stepping into a warm room after a long walk in the cold, and the kind of songs that The National have become known for, the ones on which fans base their love and on which people who actively dislike the band base their aversion, offer that that same rush of grudging warmth.
It’s worth noting that not everyone is attracted to dads, as much as our culture tries to foist an attraction to them on the general public. I’m mostly speaking both to and about a certain kind of young woman, one who is as much a patriarchal fiction as a dad is. This young woman is partly defined by her attraction to older men, divorced men, men going through midlife crises. Because this type of man is afforded such vast cultural authority, his idea of a woman horny for him specifically has been given so much space and belief that it has become large enough to be habitable. Women attracted to dads are selecting a highly available role, one created by men out of self-interest. Which doesn’t mean that that role is not authentic, or that the habitation is not legitimate.
For those of us who dated older men and divorced men, who had fantasies about our teachers and our friends’ dads, taking on this persona was for a short period at an early stage in one’s life a way to define oneself, to draw lines of sameness and difference. It’s without question true that this role is easily available because it benefits a larger, abusive patriarchal system that needs very young women to want to sleep with men in their forties the way a vampire needs blood. But what putting myself into this space really offered was not flirtations with men sinking into their midlives, but access to other women. I charted more than a decade through confessional friendships with women who also thought of themselves as this girl, even when we shared little else in common. For years just that was enough to bind me close to another woman, to make us feel that we inherently owed one another some loyalty.
As much as or more than we wanted to fuck middle-aged divorced men, we also wanted to be them. We suspected ourselves of some kind of essential corruption, and whether this was simply the laxity and incoherence of the human condition or some particular moral speciousness in our particular selves, the attraction to these men was at once how we got up close with that on-fire swamp within ourselves, and how we held it at a distance, removed enough to get a good look at it. A lot of my experience of heterosexual attraction has been about locating the way to get closest to a thing from which I was essentially shut out and kept distant; sex was the back door, the cat burglar’s flip over the fence into the area past the alarms. I couldn’t truly experience masculinity, and I didn’t want to live there, but I wanted a day pass, I wanted to go to the museum after dark and steal some of the smaller paintings.
But also we wanted all the benefits this man got, all the delicious, impossibly expansive forgiveness and understanding that our culture heaps on him, the attention lavished on his particular sadness, on his boredom, on all his sanded-down emotions, the only person whose experience of the world has no holes in the floor. Our culture takes such care of shitty men, we have such interest in them, they seem to be having so much fun. I wanted inside of their experience, these emotions that were at once so grand and so low stakes.
My experience of all these things was as fictional as The National’s is. If the pose of a man perpetually falling down in slow motion into his own mid-life crisis weren’t a mildly satirical fiction for the people creating this music, I don’t know that I would have welcomed it in the same way, or felt in the same way that it welcomed me. None of us are this man, not the band performing the songs, and not me listening to them, but it allowed me, and perhaps many of their other listeners, to fully inhabit a deliciously grimy emotional state, one more safely accessed through headphones than through the many other ways I have pointed myself toward it and wormed my way into it throughout my life.
The National’s fan base skews more female than one might expect; although their music is about divorced dads, it isn’t for them. Instead, their music is for us, girls for whom wanting to sleep with our high school english teachers at one point or another stood in for a whole personality. I believe that anyone who really loves the The National’s music exists as one of those girls while they listen to it. The band situates its viewers as a too-young woman listening to a divorced dad talk about his marriage, at once hoping to seduce him and trying to make his experience her own.
Any kind of love, even the one-sided kind one can have for a band, is always a mirror and mirrors are always unpleasant. The National would probably not be my favorite band if some part of me were not boring, low-stakes, suburban, and mercenary, if some part of me did not feel perfectly at home in these uncomfortably horny wine-bar problems, if I were not both the girl chasing the divorced dad, and also in my heart the Most Divorced Man myself. The things we love create us if we get to them early enough, but when we get to them a little bit later, they show us who we’ve already become, what we’ve accumulated, what we’ve chosen to discard and what we’ve clutched so close to ourselves for so long that its material has leaked into our own.
It feels a little strange to talk about Most Divorced Man Music now when I Am Easy to Find is The National’s least like that album so far. It’s still a National album, but it’s very much the one that feels least like your friend’s dad who you have a crush on driving you home late at night and talking about the problems in his marriage. It has leaned farthest into the fact that The National itself is a fiction, writing fictional songs about fictional things. It feels both more expansive, and less immediate, than anything that came before.
It’s also changed up the format of the songs, and the makeup of the actual band itself. I Am Easy to Find is also a short film by Mike Mills, and the idea for the film came first, prodding the band into writing an album they might not otherwise have made. The National, as an entity, is no longer five dudes; now it’s five dudes, seven women, The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, a filmmaker, and maybe Alicia Vikander (she stars in the film). In interviews, the band has talked about wanting to see “how much Berninger they can remove and still be The National.” The seven women, including Gail Ann Dorsey, Sharon Van Etten, and Mina Tindle, are female vocalists who serve not as background or occasional guest verses but whose voices drive the album’s narrative as much as Berninger’s, and who frequently take over songs from him entirely. Berninger often takes a back-up singer’s role, or becomes superfluous to the songs.
Criticisms of this album have largely been accusations of cynicism; turning over the reigns of a well-known all-men band to a group of female singers can be read as a calculating move, suspiciously well-matched to the concerns of the present moment. There have also been complaints that this album simply doesn’t sound like The National, that the band is not itself anymore, no longer recognizable for the pleasantly corrupt and grumpy reasons all of their corrupt and grumpy fans chose to love them.
But adding in this choral exchange, these formal revisions, the band includes another layer of fiction, another remove from the assumed immediacy of rock music’s narrative work. The tracks on the album go back and forth between those that feature the new vocalists, and those that return to the original formula, with Berninger mourning a vaguely broken relationship in his self-deprecating rasp in front of a shimmer of shin-kicking musical complexity. This push-pull creates a game of keep-away that is very much what The National has always been, which is to say it is still extremely divorced.
Besides, what’s more divorced than recreating yourself, than making a dramatic sharp turn away from the things that have always worked for you, upending anything that made your recognizable to the people who love you? This album might be accurately described as The National’s mid-life crisis, which is to say it is the album they have always been waiting to make. For what it’s worth, it actually feels like their least cynical to me; the casting-off of old-patterns, the childlike belief in new beginnings, is also an extremely divorced move.
Thanks to a very generous friend and some lucky circumstances, on this album’s release day I went to see The National play a show in a miniscule windowless room in Tribeca. They played most of the album and few of their best-known older songs. Two of the female vocalists who joined the band for the album were there, and Berninger frequently took a backseat to them. Everyone was mostly sober; Berninger had a solo cup of something instead of a whole bottle of wine, and danced, badly, sweetly, like a dad dancing at a wedding, between the drums and microphones on the parts of songs where he wasn’t needed. It was maybe an hour, and then everyone went home. We were all growing up, feeling things while still holding distant from one another. The band was the means by which I had collected my own life to myself over the course of a precariously strung-together decade, but it also was just a band.
I’m in my thirties now and married; the tangle of mid-life that once seemed so glamorous and appealingly horrible from far off seems like nothing more than people with the same boring problems that people always have. I married the last one of the older divorced men I fell in love with; he came to the show with me, and we both did that uncool-dad head-bop at the kick-in on “Fake Empire,” because both of us are essentially dads. Nobody onstage was divorced, and neither was I. It may be true that all artists are scammers, that the whole joy of loving a work of art is offering oneself up knowingly to be manipulated by it. This band was a con, and we were all in on it, we’d all figured out that that was the best thing about them. The lyrics on the album had nothing truly to do with them or with me, with the lives we would return back to outside of the room, and in that way it was what it had always been. Helene, this was never about you.
if you got all the way through this, I have two bonus features for you. 1) Did you know that, lyrically, A Little Bit Alexis from Schitt’s Creek is in fact a The National song? If you know what I’m talking about, please go look up the lyrics so you can understand how much this is the truth, and then join with me in imagining just how great it would be if The National covered it.
2) If you want to, you should email me and tell me what The National lyrics would have been your AIM away message if they had existed/been big in the era of passive-aggressive overwrought AIM away message lyrics-quoting (I’m pretty sure mine is “put your heels against the wall / I swear you got a little taller since I saw you,” but it moves around and it definitely used to be “you’re the lowlife of the party.”)