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The National's enigmatic darkness


I was listening Sunday night to The National’s most recent album, Trouble Will Find Me. As I lay there with headphones on and the first song playing, I thought, “I don’t know why I don’t listen to these guys more often.” Minutes later, I remembered: Regret, sadness, and a failure to connect with people permeate The National's songs. Sometimes we need to be reminded we’re not the only people in the world whom trouble has found. Other times, we don’t need to be reminded. The National often belongs in the “other times” category.

The band’s sound is dense and dark, sometimes languid, sometimes driven. Listening to it feels like stumbling through acres of tall pines, night coming down and no way out. Other times the way out is visible, but distant and difficult. Keyboards and thick-sounding drums hit the ear first. The guitar as a lead instrument surfaces only in a few bars here and there. The singer sounds like Jim Morrison getting out of bed with a head cold.

Combine this thickness with troublesome lyrics and the result is music that smites the soul like the best poetry does. It’s difficult to choose lyrics excerpts, though, because so many of them are worth contemplating.

From “Demons”:
Do my crying underwater
I can't get down any farther
All my drowning friends can see
Now there is no running from it
It's become the crux of me
I wish that I could rise above it

From “Heavenfaced”:
How completely high was I
I was off by a thousand miles
Hit the ceiling, then you fall
Things are tougher than we are

From “This is the Last Time”:
Oh, when I lift you up
You feel like a hundred times yourself
I wish everybody knew
What's so great about you
Oh, but your love is such a swamp
You don't think before you jump
And I said I wouldn't get sucked in

From “Slipped”:
I'm having trouble inside my skin
I try to keep my skeletons in
I'll be a friend and a fuck-up
And everything
But I'll never be
Anything you ever want me to be

Sometimes with The National, just a few well-placed words hammer their way home. Before I checked, I thought a phrase I was hearing was “out to see.” It wasn’t—and it made a huge difference:
Everything I love is on the table
Everything I love is out to sea

I bought the band’s 2007 album, Boxer, on impulse after seeing a full-page ad in a magazine, and then bought High Violet, from 2010. I bought Trouble Will Find Me when it came out in 2013. I had found Boxer and High Violet to be impenetrable but couldn’t shake the notion that they contained something deep, but I hadn’t yet dug far enough to find it. My early impression of Trouble Will Find Me was the same. Listening to it on headphones, though, unearthed the band’s dark lodestone.

Some musicians like James Brown make me jump around. Others, like Miles Davis in Bitches Brew mode, disconnect me from my surroundings. Some, like Richard Thompson, grab my attention by deftly blending words and music. Then there’s Jimi, who remains jaw-droppingly, head-shakingly good nearly 50 years after his death.

But I can’t say yet how I would describe The National. With my digging now complete, they compel me to think. They demand that I listen. But I have no idea what I'll unearth next.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 20th, 2015 01:33 am (UTC)
I can't disagree with your description (not that I want to!) but sometimes their sound, the depth of it, is just what you need to hear.I can't tell you how often I've had to pull the lyrics booklet from the cd case to read along in an effort to better grasp the message, because it doesn't always match the tone of the song. Like "Don't Swallow the Cap" - it could be blasted in a club and people would dance and jump, move and groove. But the lyrics: "I have only two emotions, careful fear and dead devotion. I can't get the balance right, with all my marbles in the fight..." not exactly partying words.
Aug. 20th, 2015 04:18 pm (UTC)
I know what you mean. I listened to High Violet through the headphones last night and was surprised at how the texture of the music wasn't the same as that of Trouble Will Find Me. Then, in the middle of the night, I listened to The Boxer, which was much more uptempo than I recall. The lyrics for all of their songs deserve close attention. There's always a word, a phrase, or a mini-poem buried in the mix. But I can't recall hearing anything particularly upbeat in terms of message. But they do some interesting and unorthodox things, musically.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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