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The National’s Emotional Muddle

Jul. 28, 2013
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The National’s albums don’t come easy. Most of the veteran indie-rock band’s records have been the product of turbulence and bickering, with singer Matt Berninger butting heads with guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, sometimes fiercely. Given that history of tension, it’s a surprise how at ease the group sounds on its sixth and latest album, Trouble Will Find Me, a stately record that features some of Berninger’s most open-hearted and universal songwriting yet. In advance of the band’s performance at the Riverside Theater on Monday, Aug. 5, Berninger spoke with the Shepherd about the compromises and understandings that made Trouble Will Find Me comparatively painless to record, and about the secrets of writing songs that find humor in sadness.


The new album feels a lot less layered and worked over than your last one, High Violet. Did you specifically set out to make a more direct record this time?

We never have a big discussion ahead of time. I was asking Aaron and Bryce to send me simple, strummed acoustic guitar stuff, because we didn’t have many songs that were based on open strumming of a guitar. They do a lot of interlocking finger picking stuff, and there’s some of that on this record, too, but I wanted to avoid that a bit. That’s where the song “I Should Live in Salt” came from, as well as songs like “Pink Rabbits” and “Slipped,” which are these kind of looping piano ballad things that I think in the past Aaron never would have sent me, just because he knows I would have liked them. And that was what happened here. With “Pink Rabbits,” I just couldn’t stop working on it; I was having so much fun. So Aaron’s guard was down a bit in a good way, meaning not all the music had to be so academically advanced—although this record has some of the most complicated musical things on it of any of our records, time-structure wise. But we were embracing the high road and the low road. If the song was moving us, we didn’t care if it was musically pedestrian. We were just chasing the songs without over thinking them, feeling them out and finding our way through them in a much more emotional and unguarded way. It’s funny; writing lyrics and finding melodies is usually something that takes me a long time and is a bit more of a struggle, but this time it wasn’t a struggle for me. It wasn’t that I worked on them less or that they came faster. It was that the process was smoother, more carefree.


Did you enjoy it more?

I definitely enjoyed it more. I’ve enjoyed making all of our records, but a lot of times they are uphill climbs. There’s a lot of arguing over details, and arguing over what are good songs and what songs aren’t. We argue over everything. And we argued this time, too, but the types of arguments weren’t as intense. In the past, we would argue and fight and it would get so ugly that we would wonder if we should even be in a band together. I think a lot of bands go through that. But this time, we’ve been through that so many times that we just knew that was our process and part of the chemistry of how we write songs, so we didn’t worry about those arguments as much. I think I also stopped worrying about the band’s image, and whether people would call us a depressing band or whatever.


It seems like there’s an understanding on this record that sad music can also be fun, and that there’s something comforting and reassuring about listening to sad songs.

Definitely. There are songs on the record that contemplate mortality, but I find them to be really soothing and uplifting, even though they’re about death. Then there are other songs that flirt around death in funny ways, like on “Humiliation,” where there are some funny references to dying in an embarrassing situation at an annoying backyard pool party. So I do find the record funny and cathartic. A lot of the songs are embracing some of the humor in my tendency of self-loathing. I do find that stuff to be a lot of fun to make songs out of. I never thought of us as a sad band at all. I understand why we get that label, but for the most part the effect that our music has, at least on me, is that it always makes me feel really good.


You deadpan a lot of jokes on this album, more so than on your last ones. How much are those jokes integral to the songs, and how much are they just you amusing yourself?

Well, when I’m writing lyrics at first, mostly what I’m focusing on is melodies. Once I find melodies, then words start to automatically cling to those melodies. I’ll start free associating. Sometimes it’s melodramatic, dark, heart-wrenching, sad stuff, but other times it’s just silly stuff. I’ve always had a sense that you need a balance of all of those things for a song to last and to hold up. You can’t just keep twisting the knife. It’s fun to twist the knife for a little, but you’ve got to throw a pie in the face a little bit, too, so it’s fun to juxtapose really grim or bleak or graphic moments with the silly things. I think that combination is probably an accurate balance of every single person’s day-to-day life. Life is a series of embarrassing, awful moments up against blissful and hilarious moments. I’ve always thought a song that would be the most truthful would have a big, blurry mixture of all that stuff.


In a recent NPR interview, you described your songwriting as imprecise, saying that “a lot of my lyrics approximate meaning.”

And I think that’s about as close as you can get. Because what a song is about is often just moments and thoughts and emotions. There’s a muddle. Whether a song is about a breakup or an anxiety or a desire, when you think about those things, it’s going to be a combination of flash images, and also a muddle of emotional responses to those images or thoughts, whether it’s desire or anger or frustration or loneliness. Nothing is one thing. So if you’re singing a song about somebody that you love, there’s going to be a bit of bitterness in it, a little bit of desire in it, a little bit of humiliation in it and a little bit of beauty in it. Whatever the song is about is going to be tethered somewhere in that whole spider web of connections.

The National headline The Riverside Theater on Monday, Aug. 5 with opener Daughter. Doors open at 7 p.m.


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