Thursday, July 16, 2009

The National's Songs of Forgetting and Escape

By Evan Rytlewski
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In advance of the band's return appearance at the Pabst Theater tomorrow night, I dug up this 2007 interview with singer Matt Berninger. Although I wish I could say it holds up, it already shows its age—who would expect The National to do "loud, aggressive" songs at this point?—but it does offer some perspective on the band's unusual, delayed success story and Berninger's almost Zen-like songwriting perspective:
   With a new home on a prestigious indie label (Beggars Banquet) and a well-reviewed new album under their belts (Alligator), 2005 seemed destined to be The National's breakthrough year, and the band was well positioned heading into their tour that fall. The tour was indeed a rousing success, with crowds filling clubs around the country, but there was a problem: The audiences weren’t there to hear The National.
   The National’s openers on that tour happened to be Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, an overnight buzz band with a quirky, flashy sound and a Cinderella back story (they were young, label-less nobodies until a flood of Internet attention made them stars). Night after night, Clap Your Hands played to a packed house that quickly emptied after their set, leaving The National to perform to half-empty rooms (and, by some accounts, much, much emptier ones).
   Thankfully, 2007 is shaping up to be a much more just year. Clap Your Hands were finally exposed as naked emperors—they released a sophomore album to widespread, deserved indifference—while The National are piling up rave reviews for their latest album, Boxer. This time around those reviews are translating into real press attention and a growing audience.
Boxer’s warm reception is particularly refreshing, since it’s an album that requires a much greater attention span than most. Quieter and subtler than their previous efforts, it’s an unlikely breakthrough album.
   “There was a moment as we were finish this record that we realized we didn’t have any of those loud, aggressive songs where I’d just go nuts, which were some of the most popular from our earlier records, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it,” singer Matt Berninger says. “We were just making the record that felt right, so the last thing we could do was try to force one of those songs. We didn’t just want to shoot for songs that we knew people would like. I think that’s the easiest way to write bad songs.”
   Boxer sounds as if The National rented out Leonard Cohn’s iconic room and recorded more songs from it. It’s filled with elegant, meditative tunes that suggest they could explode into lavish fireworks a la the Arcade Fire, but can only muster the energy for gentle orchestral flourishes here and there. Berninger sets the relaxed tone. He possesses an arresting, rich baritone most politicians could only dream of, but sings as if between drags of a cigarette.
   On paper it sounds like an overly morose album, but Boxer is never weighed down by the melancholy. If anything, it’s at peace with itself. Much of the album takes place in isolated city apartments, where characters hole up, pour themselves a drink (they drink a lot), watch TV and forget about their troubled relationships or larger world woes, like the war. Other songwriters demonize this sort of mentality—as a general rule songwriters urge listeners to take action and deride the weak-minded who accept the status quo—but Berninger is never so judgmental.
   “There’s a lot of songs on Boxer about people trying to escape and live in a state of denial, a little bit of a fantasy state, but I think that’s it’s kind of healthy to do that sometimes,” he says. “I think the record is, in a weird way, a little optimistic—although it might be a little absurdly optimistic in the way that people are pretending things are great when sometimes they’re not.”
   Berninger insists he isn’t trying to make a statement by skirting resolution in his songs. Like his characters, he’s just trying to escape from life’s burdens for a little while.
   “I certainly don’t want to put any pressure on myself by trying to write songs that have some sort of message I stand by,” he says. “In songwriting, there aren’t any rules. You don’t have to grow up and be responsible. When I’m sitting, writing lyrics and drinking wine, I don’t want to have to solve the issues in my life or anything else’s, or write a political song. That’s the last thing I wanted to do: I just want to get kind of drunk. And so, for me, the band is the place to do that. The rest of my life is what I take seriously.”

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