Recently, it's become a bit unpopular to love the National because everyone does. Yet, whether you like them or not, the National is the band that best captures the spirit of our generation.
When I try to introduce the National to my friends, they always say, "enough of this sad angsty dad-rock crap," a sentiment I find misguided. It's not dad or middle-aged music, it's distinctly music of the New Sincerity, the artistic movement of our time. We make a mistake when we brand the National as broody or emotional and dark. Too often, we focus on the lyrics, assuming single entendre instead of seeing the lyrics as layered poetry that dances with the music in a dynamic manner. When asked about the place of hope amidst his dreary lyrics, Thom Yorke said, "That's what the actual music is for," and the same goes for the National.
Similarly, we don't assume any artistic playfulness in our musicians. We downplay the performative nature of music. We assume that when a writer pens what reads like a personal song, a personal story, that it somehow relates to their immediate life, which reflects an odd paucity of imagination.
Indeed, frontman Matt Berninger does write emotionally evocative songs and poems of hushed mental anguish, but that's just one layer. Because Berninger's anguish is the calm, cool, and calculated musings, murmuring and howls of a person looking back. (Or better yet, we can drop any concerns of personal history and remember the intentional fallacy and the death of the author.)
The disconnect between how we speak about the National and their actual playful humor emerges in their live performance. The band ambles on stage with smiles to a calm raucous of applause and though they rush into singing about depression, pain, anguish and douchebaggery; all of it feels light because of their banter. They poke fun at each other, at the venue, the crowd, and of course, their music. In this age of New Sincerity, our tendency is to view these self-directed jokes as cynicism, as a sort of qualification on the genuineness of their music. But this is a simplistic way of thinking about art. In our age of obsession with genuine feelings, with unalloyed sincerity, we take any self of self-directed humor as cynicism, when instead it reflects maturity.
Whether Berninger is looking back on his once-pained life, or simply performing as an artist, the gap he creates between the emotional rawness of his lyrics and the playfulness of his performance creates mature humor. Otherwise, there would be something terribly sad and lame about the National: A group of smart, handsome, uber-successful musicians, whining on and on about "Another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults." Even in that famous lyric, Berninger plays it cool with a bit of frivolity when he sings, "Oh, you wouldn't want an angel watching over/Surprise, surprise, they wouldn't wanna watch." We naturally think our anguish makes us unique, or interesting, or special, and while it feels that way to us, in hindsight, we get to see that we aren't, that no angel wants to hear us whine.
This is what makes the National so compelling. Past their musicianship, and poetic lyrics, their ability to constantly dwell in that area of discomfort we label first-world problems captures our generation.
As a culture, we tend to find ourselves in a strange bind. We feel pain, but we cannot outrun that the pain we feel tends to be luxurious pain, the pain of comfort, higher order pain that speaks to a very specific brand of people. Consequently, some feel uncomfortable in what they see as whining about first world problems. The National, like most of our culture, feels this tension and finds a good compromise. They will write and sing about these first world problems, but with a healthy air of self-awareness and humor as to the absurdity of the situation. Berninger stakes this position, a position that feels similar to looking back at our teenage selves, understanding that those teenage feelings were raw and visceral, but also a bit ludicrous.
Berninger's use of vocals captures this artistic tension. Berninger sings on two registers. In the first he croons with a lazy, languid sort-of-knowing drawl of a guy who is somewhat cynical, somewhat genuine, a guy with some "bro" tendencies who laughs at himself, sitting there sipping on a whiskey, casually and fluidly handsome. The next register, the constant crescendo register, culminates in a sort of primal repetitive scream that in the context of the song is both jarring and hilarious. Hilarious, because it is a echo of the yelp of a teenage rebel, a performance of past angst that stands in stark contrast to today's experience.
At a recent show at Barclays, as an intro to "I Need My Girl," Berninger explained that this song is a straightforward without any of his usual "clever metaphors." The crowd chuckled a little, and we all understood what he meant. He wasn't complimenting himself, but poking fun at our collective need to see our pain as unique, interesting, and important. Life is sometimes hard, the National tell us, but often it's great and funny, even at the same time, and we shouldn't be afraid of accepting that.