The National Perks Up
I never really think of our stuff as that depressing," says Matt Berninger, "so when I'm asked it over and over again, it makes it obvious to me that our records must sound depressing to so many people, and I've never really wanted them to or thought of them that way."
As much as the National frontman would prefer that he and his bandmates — brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner on bass and guitar, and brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf on drums and guitar — could shake the image that they are a bunch of angst-ridden depressives, they can't really blame fans for getting the wrong impression. Berninger's deep, dark voice is frequently compared to Nick Cave's, and his minor-key melodies are often shrouded in brooding guitar lines, stark piano chords and urgent, forceful drumming. Still, he insists, the act's music, if not upbeat, is at least positive.
"Within the band, we often think of our songs as having very funny moments and being very optimistic, kind of," he notes. "We don't think of ourselves as being sad sacks, and we never really think of the records being totally that, either."
Berninger's lyrics, however, contain a fair amount of bitterness, resignation and regret, and they don't exactly dispel the prevailing downcast perception that surrounds the National. And although Berninger doesn't dispute this notion, he insists that's not the entire story, maybe not even half. "I think the songs...have desperate and sad phases, and people in difficult spots in their life, but most of them, I think, are pretty optimistic. They're not full of giving up; most of them are about trying to get through it and laughing at it, being aware that with some of this stuff, you just have to do the grown-up thing. I always think of the lyrics as being evenly emotionally balanced or even delusionally optimistic sometimes."
Said narratives aren't exactly straightforward stories that lend themselves to easy analysis or obvious meaning. That's partly because of the way Berninger writes, piecing together phrases and thoughts over time and then working them out in his mind until they feel right, often before he's nailed down any specific meaning.
"It takes me a long time to figure out when a song and the lyrics feel right," he confesses. "It's usually when they're sort of halfway figured out. It's much better to let it alone there than to connect all the dots."
Sometimes, he contends, things are far more interesting when questions go unanswered. "It's the weird alchemy between lines that don't connect literally, but they connect on a stranger, more interesting level, those kind of bridges you make between things," he explains. "The songs last longer for me, because there's room to think about things in different ways. I'll keep thinking about a song and keep enjoying singing it and hearing it if the doors and windows are left open a little bit.
"With the songs," he continues, "I'm trying to interest myself; they're definitely about things. But for me, just writing about things — I've tried that before, and it's kind of boring. It's about the loose ends: The songs that don't have any clear messages but have a lot of meaning to them are the ones that sort of stay with me. When writing lyrics, it's hard to say what I'm looking for, but it's looking for a sort of energy and some sort of theme that keeps me excited, that keeps me interested. And often, those moments — those lyrical bits that aren't specific, just a fragment of a conversation or a detail of a room — you put those together, and they create an energy that's much more exciting. You can kind of fill in the gaps on your own. It allows for room to get inside of the song without it being so spelled out."
This approach has also extended to the act's music, which, while not radically new — or even particularly adventurous — doesn't offer any obvious clues in terms of pinpointing the band's influences. Depending on the listener, it might be called rock, indie rock, alt-country, Americana or any number of similar styles. But when five people from various musical backgrounds get together and create music as equal partners, that's almost to be expected. "There's nobody who owns the songs," says Berninger. "I don't write any music. There's no leader — just naturally, people are doing different things that they love and the things they like to do. We just let the song happen, see how these different impulses pull the song in different ways.
"We'll catch ourselves if it sounds like we're trying to put on some sort of outfit that doesn't seem like it's us," he adds. "We don't have any idea of exactly what sort of band we are. It's more fun to surprise ourselves and see what happens without any preconceived plans for writing a style of music. It's hard enough to write songs that we all love — trying to bring in those kinds of ideas or thinking too much about influences, talking about influences. There's never room for that."
The synthesis that emerges from this organic creative process is subtle, refined and mature. There aren't a lot of immediately arresting elements in the National's music, but that's not from a lack of substance or skill on the part of the players. Rather, it's a consequence of the individual parts working well with each other. As with Berninger's lyrics, it takes a few listens before it becomes apparent how much is actually going on beneath the surface, how each piece of the puzzle contributes to the overall composition.
Thanks to songs that are both musically accomplished and grounded in the gritty verité of day-to-day experience, the band's latest album, Boxer, should sound as good, or better, ten years from now as it does today. The same twenty-year-old hipster who relates to songs about "trying to figure out how to pay your rent and keep your day job but not lose your soul" will most likely feel an even stronger connection years after he's returned his last vintage ironic T-shirt to Goodwill.
With that in mind, it's a safe bet that the National has a long career ahead. Each of the group's albums has shown a marked progression from those that came before, both sonically and in terms of songwriting. In addition, Berninger and his mates, who are all in their mid-thirties, aren't likely to succumb to the temptations of the road and sudden pitfalls of fame that befall so many acts in their position, providing sordid fodder for all those salacious Behind the Music episodes.
"We're past the point of burning out on drugs and all that stuff," says Berninger. "We live relatively clean except for the occasional nights of drinking too much. I think the idea is just to keep our heads and continue to grow up and continue to hold on to this rock-and-roll thing as long as we can."
And that's precisely why the members of the National are eager to begin work on their next record once the current tour is finished. "We know how lucky we would be if people were still paying attention to us ten years from now," Berninger says. "It's hard to sustain that kind of thing. I know from my perspective, if I could be making records in twenty years and not have to go back to my day job, I think we would all hope that happens."
And in order for it to happen, the National will have to keep bringing in new fans while keeping the old ones happy — or sad, as the case may be. Maybe that misery-soaked reputation isn't really such a bad thing after all.
"It's good," Berninger concludes. "It's one of those things that the impression — or that sort of brand identity — of being dark is definitely appealing, and it works. I love bands like that. I never think of us that way at all, so it's funny. But maybe I should shut up. Maybe it sells more records than the idea of being lighthearted."
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