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the adults in the room
The National's new album, and how to live beyond our own bad hearts
I should be better than this by now. I’m not supposed to want this kind of stuff anymore. I’m supposed to be past it; I’m trying to live up in the light. It’s true that pain polishes the edges of the streets and the subway stations, and makes their colors and angles sing. Feeling broken-hearted is a way to feel young again, sometimes, and sometimes sorrow can light up every avenue that stretches downtown toward a vanishing point. I used to choose the things most likely to hurt me, on purpose, aiming squarely to get hurt, and it was terrible, and stupid, but it made everything visible object spark and gleam. Every instrument entered on key and every voice found the harmony, all of it forced to make up for whatever I’d inflicted on myself. I felt so bad for so long and I didn’t like it, I really didn’t; I wouldn’t go back there for the world. But I loved it.
I’m trying to grow up and get over myself, do the work of a life in its bargains and its building blocks, to stack one piece on another until the structure holds secure. I know the throaty blue thrill of sadness, a rising chord and a held note, bridging the space between the long afternoon and the fast evening, and I know the spine-shiver of driving all the way home in a pitch-black winter night, unable to see beyond the perimeter of my own car’s headlights. Bad love and bad choices are a chemical ride, a day blown out into the white gleam behind the technicolor. I don’t want that anymore. I want to put on my coat and my shoes and leave the party and go home before it gets too late, before the walls slide sideways and people start doing things that change the shape of the years to come. I wake up at a reasonable hour, go outside, eat well, get my steps in, call my friends, and follow up on plans. I keep my calendar current; I make spreadsheets. I’ve ceded the middle of the night when it blurs into morning to younger people who don’t yet know better, still living gleefully in their mistakes.
I lived in my mistakes long enough that it stopped being fun; I stayed too late at the party. I’ve spent years trying to shed that self, and climb up into the kind of clean and boring life that keeps other people safe, early bedtimes and clean floors. But sometimes I look backward down the long way into the underworld. Sometimes I miss all the bad ideas that ever ruined my life. I can still taste the old swagger of it, squaring up to heartbreak like a gunslinger striding into town, ready to fight a hundred guys.
I’m not heartbroken now, and I haven’t been in a while, and I’ve never gotten used to it. I’m doing ok; I’m doing the hard things, or some of them, anyway. I’m doing stuff I spent so long hiding from, and it’s going all right, I guess, but I haven’t been sleeping well, or early enough, or much at all. I haven’t been getting up to play basketball in the mornings even though the weather’s good for it. I’ve been too worried about money, and aging, the dying world outside my window and the small, shrill one inside my phone. I haven’t been able to write anything, for weeks, even though writing is ostensibly my only job. I feel at every moment balanced on a very small and windy ledge with no guardrails in sight—as long as I don’t breath much and don’t let my eyes focus on anything, I’ll be ok. I’m doing fine, but I can’t sleep, and I can’t write, and I can’t find any way to talk about it. I’m living up here in adulthood finally; I hate when adults talk about adulthood or use the word at all, but I don’t know what else to call it. I got here late and I’m doing all right, but it’s so much less fun than when I was doing everything wrong on purpose. This is a review of The National’s new album.
First Two Pages of Frankenstein is easy to listen to, which might be what made me initially wary of it. It’s more recognizably what this band does than their previous effort, the experimental, collaborative, art-movie assemblage-work I Am Easy to Find, was, although it still features several other artists swooping in to put their thumb-prints on the songs. The opening track, with an assist from Sufjan Stevens, plays like a sigh, or like the drink you have at five pm when you started drinking at noon. It’s thick as a velvet couch and slow as a water glass full of gin. The songs that follow are for the most part deceptively gentle, wearing their minor-key longing and lightweight grief plain on their faces. The National’s sound has always been lush, but here it's a carpet so deep you could lose a family member in it. There’s a lot of piano, and a lot shimmer, and a lot of the wistful sweetness that’s been creeping up into the band’s music for a while. Many of the songs have the circular, murmuring shape of a lullaby; I listened to the album on repeat many times over before I noticed that that was what I was doing.
I didn’t get it, and then I did, and then I wasn’t sure I could trust myself. Weeks after the album dropped, I finally read Amanda Petrusich’s gorgeous profile of The National in The New Yorker, a piece that came out on the same day as the album. I’m gnawingly jealous of anyone who gets to write about The National for a major publication, but Petrusich’s piece is so achingly lovely that it washed all that away for me, and replaced it with a wide-armed gratitude. “National shows are hushed, until the moment they feel like a bloodletting,” Petrusich writes, describing the tiny upstate concert that marked the release of First Two Pages of Frankenstein. I recognized this description from dozens of shows I’ve been to, transposed into the temporary family of a small room, and I realized the bloodletting was what I’d been missing on the new album, and what I hadn’t been able to locate in it. Knowing it still played that way live made me begin to hear it differently.
I’m always shocked when I remember that The National are wildly popular; I love this band in a breathless, possessive way that makes me unable to believe anyone else knows they exist1. Every time they put out a new album, I’m surprised to see everyone else’s posts and articles and reviews and tweets about them. I shouldn’t be though; The National are, at this point, entirely mainstream. They have a legion of fans who’ve loved them far longer and more obsessively than I have, people posting minute examinations of lyrics on Reddit and standing in lines all night in the cold. These facts make me feel like the whole world is crowded into my apartment, watching the most mundane and intimate parts of my life unfold. I love the National the way you think the bathroom at a bar is your own house if you spend too long in there fixing your makeup and making friends with drunk girls.
I love them so much I never bothered to explain them to you, up at the top of this essay, who this band is, or why they matter, or why I’m writing about them nearly a month after their new album was new. They’re the band almost everyone you know loves but almost never talks about; they’re a band wrongly characterized— including by me2— as a bunch of sad dads. They look like the first google result for “a band from Brooklyn” but none of them live in Brooklyn. They’re the sound of my twenties, and my most important friendships, and the worst year of my life, and the best one, and all the other ones too, even the ones before they existed. They’re a middle-aged mid-life-crisis man band; they’re a band for teenage girls. They’re like if Tom Wambsgans from Succession tried to write a love song; they’re like if that one Paul Simon lyric about asking a woman at party if she has a Fullbright were a whole band’s discography; they’re not like any of these things, not really, but the jokes are too hard to resist, especially since a lot of their songs are composed of jokes like these, at their own expense. They’re in on the joke but they’re also deadly serious. They’re a band I used to be embarrassed to love3, but I’m not anymore. They’re my favorite band, but they’re everybody’s favorite band.
I wish I knew why The National’s music feels so resoundingly familiar to me. But it may just be that: It’s familiar. I like Berninger’s unsteady, overproof baritone, and I like the Dessners’s nerdy little octopus-armed tape-on-glasses tinkering at the seam where pop and classical music sheepishly collide. I like the anxiety-heartbeat subway-under-the-movie-theater forward drive of the drums, which has always been the crucial secret ingredient that made this band what they are. I like the twisty, bitter, opaque lyrics with their self-conscious references to weird sex and late twentieth century literature. I like all of these things on their own— after all, they’re how I started loving this band in the first place—but I also like the furrows that this music has dug through my life over the last fifteen years. The shimmer and growl of one verse and another on “Where is Her Head,” the slow build toward the big kick in on “Fake Empire,” or the frantic musical self-sabotage on “Cherry Tree:” each of these, and dozens of others, hook to a moment, a relationship, an argument, a reconciliation, a bad idea I once had, or a day ten years ago when something happened that mattered desperately to me at the time. That’s the problem with love; you make something a part of your life, and then it becomes about you, telling your own stories back to yourself, conscripted into the cast of your movie. Love something long enough and it becomes your archive, a closet full of hooks on which to hang memories. I love the National’s music because of the music, but I also love it because it's the house where I grew up.
In the early aughts, The National were playing the same downtown venues where I hung out, and I had never heard of them. The aperture of my life in those tight-gripped days was so small it barely allowed in anything at all. I was running so fast and not getting anywhere, and I was so scared all the time, and trying so hard to tell everybody how much I wasn’t scared. The National were putting out a series of near-perfect albums about exactly those same emotions, the same dark rooms and thorny hedges I spent each day falling into and clawing my way out of, but that overwhelming fear, the thing that those of us who are no longer young so easily forget is the signal quality of being young, kept me from noticing. I had no room for anything new unless somebody else— someone I loved, or wanted to love, or wanted to impress, or wanted to become— told me I should love it.
On a spring day almost exactly thirteen years ago, somebody did. A friend who lived across an ocean told me about an album by a band from my city, and I pretended that I already knew about them, and already loved them. Lying is always at the heart of love; I learned that from a song by The National. By the time I heard High Violet on the day it came out, everybody else knew about it already. But I didn’t care. All I knew, on that afternoon, on that shitty couch, with my headphones plugged into a dying laptop and dirty sunlight streaming into the room from over my shoulder, was that the songs sounded like they had come straight out of my own heart. I knew nothing, and then I was infatuated, zero to sixty in the space of an inhale. The music seemed like it would hurt me, and I ran toward it with my arms open, hoping it would, the same kind of thrilling bad choice that oozed out of every one of their songs.
In interviews in the last few years, The National have said in so many words that they write love songs. That’s what it’s always been: Love songs. Crooner shit. Torch singing. High school poetry, wet-hearted lover-boy ballads, baby please come home. This isn’t new, and I don’t think the band is saying it is. Popular music, and rock and roll — whatever that is, and whatever’s left of it— is, and pretty much always has been, love songs. Guitars, drums, bass, three chord riffs, synths and key changes and self-indulgent noodling piano, an army’s worth of sweaty faces singing along to the same words in the ocean of an arena, your kid sister in the garage with her friends and the mostly-broken instruments they bought on eBay, giant speakers and glittering reverb, Dylan plugging in his guitar at Newport, Boygenius and Muna grinding sweaty and ecstatic to “Silk Chiffon” at Coachella last month: And the greatest of these is love.
Love, particularly in pop music, isn’t a virtue, or even a good idea. Some writing about love tries to make it noble, or beautiful, or important, the origin of our best achievements and the motivation to be our best selves. But the mismatch strains so hard at the borders that the image falls right out of the frame. Mostly, love is some bullshit, and at its best it’s blowing off your responsibilities on a hot, wet, dripping-green summer afternoon in a city that smells like steam and garbage. It’s the sound of broken air-conditioners and everybody exaggerating their resumes, staining out from windows and getting all over the canyon walls from one end of an island to another. Whatever there is to recommend love is its corruption, its uselessness, its essential selfish smallness, its dirty hands offering you a cigarette with the full knowledge that you’re trying to quit. Love is petty, harmful, boring, a distraction, a waste of time, just as juicy and poisonous a form of self-sabotage as drinking or drugs or partying. It’s a pile of candy three days after Halloween, picking a fight when you should go to bed, the text you send at 3am to the number labeled “don’t text” in your phone, that game with the dinosaur that the browser gives you when the wi-fi goes down, and playing it instead of doing your work even after the wi-fi comes back. There are no victims in love, because everyone is guilty; a love story is a story in which every main character is the villain.
That’s the kind of thing The National might write a song about, full of sickly sentimental turns of phrase and a melody so heavy it drags the sun down out of the sky. This band has always made adult music about adult problems, all the way back to the Meet Me in the Bathroom days when they were the school dance chaperones of the downtown New York rock revival scene. They write love songs, but those love songs are weighted down with consequence and regret; love may be new, but it’s never for the first time, and there’s nobody here who doesn’t already know better. The driving anxiety of their earlier albums felt like at once being in a dark bar with the worst guy you know and like staying home on a rainy day to finish the last hundred pages of a thick novel. Listening to First Two Pages of Frankenstein, I struggled to place that same anxiety, that sense of doing the worst thing on purpose, of hiding from the world. I wondered if the band had outgrown those sorts of bitter thrills in the same way I had. Maybe they’ve gotten old, or maybe I have, or maybe all of us were old to begin with, even when we were young.
Maybe when I say I miss the jittery meanness of The National’s mid-aughts albums, I’m talking about myself, and not the band. Most of the time, when we long for the way something used to be, we’re really just saying we wish we could go back and do it over again, see the people we can’t see anymore, go to the places we can no longer go, and fix the mistakes we didn’t know we were making at the time. I wish there were more drums on this album, and I miss when the lyrics were messier, the bristly poetry of a drunk guy losing his train of thought while telling an inappropriate story. But I also miss feeling like I had time and space enough to make bad choices on purpose. I miss putting on too much lipstick and a cheap dress that fit me poorly, and going out to run after whatever would hurt me the most. I guess love is like this too; some part of you always misses the novelty of it, the moment before it all happened, when anticipation and longing drowned out all your own noise.
Earlier in the New Yorker piece, Petrusich quotes Berninger’s recollection of the band coming up in the downtown New York scene at the turn of the most recent century, alongside The Strokes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “We were watching these cool bands that were way better than us at the Mercury Lounge,” is how he describes it. The National had been on the outside; now they’re at the center of the room. When they play a show, it’s a nearly religious experience for their hordes of adoring fans, the “reverence and bloodletting” described in the same piece. They’re playing a double bill with Patti Smith at Madison Square Garden in August. The days of “bands way better than us” are a distant memory. There’s no way to claim that they aren’t popular, that they aren’t widely loved.
Being loved, and living with that security, can be as difficult as heartbreak. At the starting-out of anything— a relationship, a musical career— there’s the anxiety of reaching for something you don’t yet have. Then, if you manage to get the thing, there’s the anxiety of having something and worrying each day you’ll lose it. It can feel impossible to live comfortably on solid ground, to feel stable in stability. Trying to navigate safety can be just as much of a messy coming-of-age process as trying to navigate crisis. The storms are internal rather than external, but they still tear the house apart. I’m doing ok, I’m doing all the things that add up to a better, cleaner life, but I still can’t sleep, or write, or feel like I’m safe in safety. I still feel sad more often than I have any reason to feel sad.
The National have always made music about sorrow, and been best known for melancholy; reviews of their work strain the upper limits of synonyms for “sad.” In press for this album, including the New Yorker piece, Berninger talks openly about depression, using the actual word for it, maybe for the first time publicly. It becomes clear that that depression is both the animating theme of the album, and the thing that nearly kept it from existing. The familiar sadness in their music might be a sort of adolescent, lovelorn yearning, but it’s also the very adult hopelessness of “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out,” a medical condition, a bodily reality, a pall over the day, a romance with nothing romantic at all about it.
The collision of these two things — success, depression— is a pedestrian one, familiar to most anyone who’s listened to The National’s music, or probably to any music at all. Finding oneself unable to be happy in circumstances that should produce happiness is quotidian stuff, a grim but familiar piece of “the un-magnificent lives of adults.”4 I associate The National with the sort of rotten love and self-sabotaging obsession I chased when I was younger, a kind of teenage sentimentality and carelessness. But that kind of love, and those kinds of bad choices, are often paired with the bleak, middle-aged despair that brims up under each song’s thick-carpeted first layer.
These are love songs sung through the fog of depression, or against it, or as a way out of it. Then again, that’s what most love songs are, if not all of them, reaching back to time immemorial. Infatuation and heartbreak are effective distractions, ways to temporarily escape the bear-trap of one’s own mind. The swaggering masochism of trying to get your heart smashed up on purpose, and the insistence on one bad romance after another— the stuff, in short, of most songs by The National— might be understood as survival strategies. Pop music is happy noise about sad things. Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” for instance, perhaps the platonic ideal of a pop song, is a bop about devastating loneliness. It’s a banger about having no one to be with that allows its listeners to be with one another, a joyful hype-up anthem about isolation. It’s an act of defiance: I can’t make myself not feel like this, but I can turn the feelings into a party. I might be alone, but I can make this whole room dance together about how alone I am. Stilettos and broken bottles / I’m spinning around in circles.
The National write about sorrow, self-sabotage, depression, and hopelessness in a way that sounds beautiful but moreover in a way that’s fun, and sexy, and often very funny. The songs are about feeling stuck, but the drums underneath tell the opposite story, driving forward like a bad heart intent on getting worse. The kinds of relationships and crises I got into when I was first obsessed with this band were often ways for me to escape what I didn’t yet understand as depression. At least if I did something terrible on purpose, I wouldn’t feel trapped inside my own internal, implacable grey fog. If I was going to be in pain, at least I could give that pain a heavy downbeat and lush harmonies. It’s almost hopeful; even self-destruction is still doing something, reaching for some connection. If I’m interested in love stories and how they end badly, in bad choices and the big clanging symphony they kick up when the fire trucks arrive, then I haven’t given up yet. I still want more of the world beyond myself; I still want something to happen.
The National’s music has soundtracked and underscored the last decade and a half of my life, and it sounds like all the bad things I miss without wanting them back. No matter how much both this band and I change and soften, no matter how much we all get old and resigned, their music will always summon back up the thrilling despair and desperate adrenaline of making a bad decision on purpose. Put it another way: It sounds like love.
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The piece I wrote about them for this newsletter when their last album came out gives a pretty comprehensive picture of this obsession, and of the band’s place in a certain popular imagination. I still like this a lot, even if I’d revise parts of my opinion on the band now. I wouldn’t revise any of my opinions about sad dads and divorced middle-aged men as a concept and cultural monument, though, which is mainly what this piece is about.
One point of this piece, a list of contemporary dad bands and what your favorite one says about you, is that these bands aren’t really dad bands, but also I’m having fun here way more than I’m trying to be in any way rigorous.