I am 41 years old and I am a loving husband and father, and a chronic daydreamer who has dabbled in writing and music for the better part of my life, playing in several bands since high school, releasing music into the world here and there, writing song lyrics and poems and the occasional review, essay, or blurb for projects of friends, zines and whatnot. Like many who do not have the fortune to make a living out of our dreams, productivity in creative endeavors has always been totally proportionate to the amount of free time I have. That is to say that since my son was born I have not made much music or written anything substantial. I was lucky to have just joined a band a couple months before his birth and for the first few years of his existence we played shows intermittently and put out two records, a seven-inch, and full length LP, on a German “limited pressing” vinyl-only label, (yup, no shit,) but before one could utter the words “different levels of commitment,” three-fourths of the band were fathers, and between that fact and our child-less guitarist being invited to join a far more popular band on the cusp of breaking out, we could not keep it going. The major events of which I just spoke happened in a four year period in which my son was born, my wife and I were married at the local courthouse, the aforementioned band broke up, and I eventually left a job I’d had for more than a decade up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and returned to my hometown of San Diego, where I had lived my entire childhood and extended adolescence until I transferred from San Diego City College to UC Santa Cruz at the overripe age of twenty-eight, and where we will now stay with my in-laws until we “settle in and get on our feet” and I get a new job.
So now I am listening to the new The National LP, “Sleep Well Beast,” and it feels appropriate. It is past midnight and I am trying to write. It was released a few weeks ago and tonight is my first time checking it out, not being a die-hard fan. I’m not even sure if I’m a fan, “fan” being short for “fanatic” and I’m certainly not fanatical about the music of this apparently well-bred and certainly well-groomed fivesome. Given the emotional texture of these songs, a kind of austere coolness, like the first person narrator in an existential novel, it seems dubious that one who appreciates, and even, dare I say, empathizes with their content, can be fanatical about anything but their own self-doubt. It is a strange relationship I have to the music of The National: the music is well-made, ironclad, American “Indie Rock for grown-ups,” hook-filled and concise, stately and grandiose, but it is filled with a dreadfully depressing longing for feeling. No, that’s not right, it does makes one feel….what? Content with disappointment?
The lightbulb, however dim, flickers on, and begins to burn brighter…That’s it! The music is pretty, for sure; I’ve always admired how some of their best slow to mid-tempo songs are obviously constructed around a catchy piano figure, the drums pulsate, krautesque, (hell yeah that’s a word,) pristinely recorded, and then Matt Berninger’s gravitational baritone pours golden honey in between the strings. The lyrics are syntactically plain but allusive and exquisitely abstruse: “I’m always mothering myself to bits/ I’m always checking out” (Track 3, “Walk It Back”) or, “We’re in a different kind of thing now/ all night you’re talking to God” (Track 4, “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness.”) Yeah, you think, I feel it. And I’m O.K. with being kinda sad. This is what growing up is, right? Right?…The glacially slow glide out of the idealistic wilderness of youth into middle age, the contentment with disappointment, and then? And then?… The lot of us, those who have never graced the cover of a glossy national music magazine or shared a stage with our hallowed influences and heroes whilst making football-field-sized guarantees night after night, will go to our unremarkable jobs and take care of our babies and our lawns (if we’re so lucky) and these pint-sized slices of the American Dream, slowly losing that glint of feral iggy Pop in our eyes each time we awake in the morning readying for our dayjobs.
One thing that stands out about this record if we look at the continuum of sad-sack-saccharine that is The National, is how much programming and electronic music elements populate these songs in little hedged bet bursts here and there. If these sound like the words of a crank it’s because at first I can’t get past the idea that these electronics on this album are a ploy to appeal to the younger, more hip folks who might otherwise sneer with indignity at them, like intentionally ripping holes in two hundred dollar pairs of jeans. My impulse is to feel as though it’s unnecessary and pandering. And yet, halfway through the record I realize that these electronic parts are damn tasteful and heck, I can’t really be mad about a band expanding and trying to stretch out one’s sound, giving it some added freshness. A far cry from the bastardization of auto-tune, this.
Oh sure The National can rock, kids. Like, sometimes they actually rawk rock. Every so often on their records, always fuelled by the martial drums, of course, when they “overdrive” the guitars just enough to get that wiry post-punk quality that several generations of music-lovers have used to signify unnamable irritation and dissatisfaction. It’s been a couple records since Berninger’s returned to the vulnerable, on-the-verge-of-cracking, not-quite-scream that one hears on this album’s “Turtleneck” and it’s a welcome, humble sound. However, their finest “rockers,” usually released as singles, such as “Bloodbuzz, Ohio” (off 2010’s “High Violet”) and this year’s “The System Only Dreams…” ultimately possess a restraint, a refusal to totally abandon the terra firma of well-manicured middle-class pensivity they so excel at. Perhaps this is an attribute and nothing to gripe about; theirs’ is a well-crafted totally honed-in sound. They are no spring chickens and I’ve read they’ve all been making music since adolescence; no doubt they’ve earned their shiny chrome sound. (As I listen to it, my father-in-law, a sixty year old former roadie and A/V engineer who has never identified with Punk, and who has never heard them before, voices his admiration for their production. I nod in agreement.)
Did I mention they’re quite catchy downers too? Melodic earworms melting in your ear making mantras of those abstruse lyrics I mentioned. Those hooks are present again in this album, if not quite as immediate as their three previous albums, notably “Day I Die,” “Walk It Back,” “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” and “Carin at the Liquor Store.” Sometimes, to this day, when I’m stressed about my student loan debt and thinking about bills I owe, I’ll hear the lyrics to “Bloodbuzz, Ohio” echoing in my head, “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe..,”and, (I’m literally realizing this as I write,) despite the following line, “I never thought about love when I thought about home,” the lyrics in that first line do comfort me, I feel as though I empathize with the voice of that particular song and its woe. Sure, it’s kinda sad, but it’s cathartic, like screaming in the car along to the best punk rock when nobody else is with you.
“Sleep Well Beast” winds down with the song which gives the album its title, and, which, in their standards, might be considered a long Epic Poem, at six minutes and thirty-one seconds. It begins with a programmed beat that utilizes what sounds like the “human voice” setting in most synths, producing an amalgam of flute-like and angelic chorus effect in robotic repetition. It is the kind of thing that would have sounded perfectly in place on Radiohead’s “Kid A,” replete with twinkling constellations of piano and stabbing Magic Band angular fuzzed guitar solo. Atop this canvass Berninger first speaks what sounds like autobiographical poetic imagery with just a lilting half sung chorus, “I’ll tell ya’ bout it sometime/ the time we left,” and “I’ll still destroy you someday / sleep well beast/ you as well beast,” By this time I’m arrested, totally captive to the artfully elided elements of arranged strings and distorted sonics which in lesser hands (maybe even my own) might result in morass or squall dressed up as art-noise end, in and of itself, but here becomes a debonair lullaby to the “Beast” of anxieties that haunts the middle-aged and married parent in the dread-filled dead of night when everybody else has gone to bed and you wonder how you manage to keep it together but know implicitly like the bone under your skin that you will continue because love makes it all worth it somehow.
Shit, I really want to listen to the single, “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness,” again too, because I swear I understand exactly what it all means now. Tonight somebody else understands me, speaks to me, speaks for me.
Yes, now I realize that The National don’t need to “let it all hang out” to be an effective band in this day and age; they’re not worried about whatever brand or external imprimatur you or anybody wants to saddle them with, be it “Dad Rock,” “Adult Contemporary Indie,” or that most condescending, “The Thinking Person’s (dot-dot-dot).” I had thought they were not explosive enough or did not contain enough fire simply because it might muss up their coiffures or pop a button off their well-tailored suits, but they certainly know what they’re doing better than most of us of a similar vintage; they just want to hold an open image in a vague frame long enough so that we might look at it as though a mirror, only to find ourselves in the songs, full of pain, longing and feeling. We should be so blessed, aging with grace and dignity in suits that actually fit us.
*The National will be performing in San Diego at SDSU’s Open Air Theater this Thursday October 12
-Alejandro Cesario Magaña
San Diego, CA