Industrial strength National here: shaky relationships and good intentions, guilt and sarcasm, self-doubt blossoming into doubt about the world at large. In their own words:
It’s a Hollywood summer
You’d never believe the shitty thoughts I think
Meet our friends out for dinner
When I said what I said, I didn’t mean anything
I’ve been watching the documentary “The Story of Film” on TCM and in one episode the writer/narrator Mark Cousins is discussing silent film comedy and says that Buster Keaton “filmed in deadpan.” The National seem to live, and to narrate their lives, in the same deadpan, as a kind of slapstick tragedy (Tennesee Williams, and a better phrase than the two plays it housed). It’s easy to miss the humor in lead singer’s Matt Berninger’s baritone–he seems to be taking himself so seriously!–but it’s there, in lines like “Had my head in the oven so you know where I’ll be” and in the way, some years into a long-ish marriage, “You’re the only thing I ever want and more” becomes what Matt actually sings, “You’re the only thing I ever want anymore.” The National seem emotionless, remote, all stationary camera and long shots, but listen harder and you’ll hear that they are trying so hard: to figure out how to get along with their loved ones, to figure out why it’s so hard for them to actually deliver on what they figure out, to measure the gap between reality and their ideals and ideal selves. They could probably have an interesting discussion about these themes with Bruce Springsteen.
Which brings us to what really makes this song, though, is the bridge:
I was afraid, I’d eat your brains
Because I’m evil…
I’ve seen critics say these lines are about our potential for violence or how we fear we’ll kill our loved ones, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on. They are more about trying on the mask of being evil, of wishing we were evil, because that would excuse all our little crimes and betrayals and failures of nerve. Evil lets us off the hook. Evil is force a nature: what to do before it but submit! But we’re not evil: we’re normal and flawed and we make mistakes we have to take responsibility for. So leave the silver city to the all the silver girls and say I’m sorry across a breakfast table no one is actually sitting at because everyone has an 8:00 meeting they’re rushing off to.
(The zombie allusion was, by the way, the closest I came to bringing my son, then age 11, into the indie rock fold, before he lit out for the territories of hip hop.)
I don’t hear anything as compelling as this song on the new National album, Trouble Will Find Me. It’s not bad, I still like their sound, but this time around the jokes (“I do not light up the room”) aren’t quite as funny and there’s something too-familiar and too-much about the whole effort. They seem like that guy from New York who shows up at your party and is enigmatic and fascinating at first but then keeps talking. By track 8 or so I’m pulling back my shoulders into a stretch, glancing at my watch, saying, “Whoa, National, look at the time…” “God loves everyone/Don’t remind me” is a great line, though.