The National Make American Music
Do you remember the rousing, anthemic song you heard sound-tracking key moments in Barack Obama's presidential bid? This was long ago, in the halcyon days of late 2008, when the feeling was one of indefinable rush, belief that maybe the process could work and we could make history simply by electing the most appropriate guy for the job.
"We're half awake in our fake empire," the lyrics went, but the pulsing insistence of the song made it feel as though we could wake up in a real one, and young America came out, and we went all in on a real dramatic bet.
That song — "Fake Empire" — was by The National, a band comprising two sets of Cincinnati-gone-Brooklyn brothers, the Dessners and Devendorfs, and fronted by a gravely baritone singer named Matt Berninger. The band had been cranking out excellent, literate, depressing albums since the early Aughts, before Obama's folks nabbed that particular tune and introduced them to a wide audience of middle-of-the-roaders, C-Span insomniacs, and hardened politicos.
The Obama administration seemed oddly realistic in this one particular choice. For all the talk of "hope" and cries of "yes, we can," there's a certain steely-eyed pragmatism to the song's crucial line: "Let's not try to figure out everything at once," Berninger sings, oddly omniscient, upsetting, and ironic. Isn't that exactly what we asked "Barry" to do, and isn't his failure to do so in a mere two years precisely why the Dems are stumbling toward a messy ass-beating next month?
That's no attempt at liberal condescension, either. It is frustrating. Our dads, moms, brothers, and sisters are still losing jobs, still dying in wars, still carrying around copies of the Constitution, scratching their heads, and shouting for inclusion or exclusion or who-the-hell-knows-what. The National's new record, High Violet, their first of the Obama era, seems keenly tuned into the climate.
The record summarizes nearly 10 years of themes explored by the band: alienation, debt, awkward sex, stiff drinks, and a fractured ability to connect with other human beings. In other words, the general condition of the American male in the 2000s — removed from his specific stature as a dot-com-bubble tragedy and refreshingly devoid of political categories or divisions.
Berninger sings, with trembling gravitas, lines like "I don't have the drugs to sort it out," "I'm afraid of everything," and, most resonantly, "I still owe money to the money I owe." The band rules musically, with brooding soundscapes, haunting orchestration, and, occasionally, full-force rock music — but it's hard to get past Berninger's lyrical prowess, the way he stretches impossibly simple lines into gun-barrel poetry.
When Berninger sings about being carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees, doesn't it sound positively Biblical? What about when he sings "Karen, put me in a chair, fuck me, and make me a drink," summoning all the commanding force such a statement requires? How about when the band wrote a list called "Ten Great Memories of Songs and Cars" for Pitchfork? It was so classic and honest that I went out and bought Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers and listened to "Murder Me Rachael" over and over. It's this human element, the band's ability to speak to the listener directly, that remains its greatest strength.
Despite their concise and thoughtful open letter discussing their decision not to boycott Arizona in the wake of that supremely bad idea hatched by some of our more desperate leaders, despite the fact that "Fake Empire" will always stir up an idealism that gets harder and harder to hang on to, The National are a political band only in the sense that politics are supposed to be about the people. Whatever happens in November, Americans will still be trying their best, and until we get it all figured out, we'll have to keep our heads down and "live on coffee and flowers," trying "not to wonder what the weather will be."
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