Two summers ago while living in Grand Rapids, I decided to caravan a crew of friends to my suburban Chicago hometown for the weekend. Prior to the trip, I arranged a playlist designed for optimal listening satisfaction. An hour into the almost three-hour drive, my playlist arrived at a string of songs from my then- and still-favorite band, The National.
I soon forgot all self-awareness and began singing along and tapping my fingers to a rhythm I felt compatible with the music’s percussion line. Like I said, this is my favorite band. I feel their music. I dig it, rock out and cry to it. It speaks to me. When Matt Berninger sings, I listen. Then I sing with. By the time “Conversation 16” came on, I could have been the lead singer in the background choir:
“I was afraid, I’d eat your brains.”
I sang this line over and over, just as they do in the song. I sang it softly to myself and then, with the support of the quickening thud of my hand-drum, built to what I was sure was a glorious choral crescendo. Then from the backmost bench of my 9-passenger conversion van, I heard a comic lament over the clamor of my righteous vocals.
“What is this music?” The question came from Krisztina, a delightful Hungarian friend, who, judging from her tone, was nearly beside herself, presumably at the fact that another living, breathing human being could listen to and take pleasure in the same combinations of sounds and words—she later told me she doesn’t consider it “music.” She started to laugh so hard she could barely speak.
“The singer sings like he is just talking and the words make no sense.” At this point in her interjection, most of the back seat had joined her in laughter, signaling their previously unsaid agreement.
Two years later, their backseat opinions have done little to influence my taste in music. I still listen to The National while working, running, and traveling. While home for Christmas last year, my mom avoided riding in cars with me because she didn’t want to listen to “that groaning music.”
Here’s the thing about the critics: They’re right. The National groans. Sometimes Berninger doesn’t quite sing the lyrics. And the lyrics rarely make sense. One song tells you that “You and your sister live in a lemon world.” The next says “I should live in salt.”
Berninger has said in interviews that the band creates the music for a song and that he writes the lyrics according to music.
“I listen to the music and I drink some wine and I start singing along and looking for melodies and later words start to stick to those melodies like fly paper,” says Berninger.
It’s a process that doesn’t lend itself to easily understood music, and The National understand that.
“We sabotage the accessibility of a song, not consciously,” Berninger says with a grimace. “I don’t think the lyrics work outside the song, outside of the music,” he admits. But the flip side of the inaccessibility coin is a kind of fluidity, room for the song to grow and for listeners to grow with it. Sure, maybe they’re singing about a “river full of lost sharks,” but what you hear is a thoughtful meditation on fear and regret.
“I think our songs do sort of reveal themselves a little bit after multiple listens,” says Berninger. “We write songs that I think need to be listened to over and over again.”
Perhaps this is keeps me listening to The National—that I have a couple of years of listening invested in the band. Perhaps that’s why their music might seem bland and absurd if you’re hearing it for the first time in the back seat of a conversion van. Or maybe it’s all just a matter of taste.
Last weekend I saw Krisztina in Budapest. On the bus ride home, “Conversation 16” came on the shuffle of my iPod. Since social custom prohibits impassioned karaoke on busses, I couldn’t sing along in the manner I wished to. But as the song reached its chorus, I could think about the last two years and smile while tapping my thumb.