Everything Is Embarrassing: On Loving The National
Music for a leaking heart
Most of the things we love are the things that embarrass us. Most of the reasons we love people are the same reasons they embarrass us. I got into the National late, after just about everybody I knew, when High Violet came out in 2010. I may have been a dilettante and a joiner, but I joined with the fullest heart, with the most aggressively committed sentimentalism imaginable. I got into the band with my whole face, with my whole bad leaking heart, the kind every one of their songs chronicled; a bad leaking heart that was majestic and untrustworthy and slightly off-key, dragging itself desultory and bloated down the sidewalk to another party to drink at the open bar with everybody else’s bad hearts.
I had never loved a band like I loved this band, and the truth is I never really have since. I acknowledge that quite a lot of music is better than the National, more accomplished, more important, more coherent, and less embarrassing. But we rarely love things for reasons that aren’t embarrassing. The things we really love say more about who we are than we’d like them to say. The National are far and away my favorite band, but if you asked me what music I like and I didn’t know you well, I wouldn’t necessarily mention them. That answer would reveal too much. Maybe I don’t want you to know me that well; maybe I don’t want to be that known.
The National put out a new album last month, and suddenly there was a rush to admit that you’d secretly always loved them. Everyone I knew loved the National like I did, and many of these people were close friends, and I had had no idea. This may partly be a function of the band not having had an album out for a long time, not giving any of us a reason to discuss them. But bands come up in conversation between albums, at least the bands you love in the way that so many of us were talking about loving them, bands who soundtracked the flow of emotions of from one season of life to the next, whose songs were tagged to our breakups and new loves, rejections and triumphs and walks of shame.
I’d wanted to write about the National, or talk to friends about them, in 2013 when Trouble Will Find Me came out, but I was embarrassed by my feelings and nobody else was really talking about it, so I kept quiet and told people I was kind of over the band, meanwhile playing “Graceless” so many times on repeat in my headphones that I cannot think of meeting the man who’s now my husband without hearing the backbeat of that song, and cannot hear the song without being thrust back through time to when this person who now lives in my house only lived in my phone. I made a lot of jokes about dad music and dad cardigans, and then I played “I Should Live in Salt” every time I cried on the subway.
Which makes me think that maybe it isn’t that we just never had a reason to talk about the National, but that this is a band so many of us have loved so long and in such a specific skin-close, embarrassing way that we don’t necessarily want to share it. Maybe this is why we all had to say we loved The National by making jokes about how bad it is to love them, and maybe we made these jokes for the same reasons that Sleep Well Beast inspired confessions rushing like a stopped-up faucet from so many people I know.
Sleep Well Beast is a departure not just musically, but narratively, for the band. For years they were an absolute Brooklyn, New York, cliche, a gang of overgrown sad boys neglecting their families to live in a big shared house in Ditmas together and combatively make music all day long. That fantasy has split up and shattered since the last album, and now the band’s participants are scattered across not just the country but the world, in places as far-flung as Paris and Cincinnati. Sleep Well Beast was a reunion of sorts, recorded at Aaron Dessner’s upstate New York studio, where the band would unite when their schedules allowed for planned bursts of musical productivity and recording. The album is a specific incident in time, rather than a lifestyle, a more intentional album than any other of the others so far. Berninger has called the lyrics “more emotionally direct,” and the music itself is more straightforward as well, with at least two songs—“Day I Die” and “The System Only Dream in Total Darkness”—being the most approachable jams the National has ever written. I have frequently tried to get my husband to listen to the National, but before this, it had never stuck. His only comment last summer, when I put all their albums on shuffle on Spotify and played it in the car was, “Is that guy going to apologize again?”
But last week, he texted me that he couldn’t stop listening to “Day I Die” on repeat, compared the band to the Cure, and then went face-down in the band’s back catalogue, texting me a running commentary of exclamation and discovery and new love that I remember from seven years and two albums ago. Then, I was just barely 26 years old when High Violet came out, and I had just gotten out of a very bad relationship. On the other side of that breakup, the world felt saturated with oxygen, like an abundant holiday table when you haven’t eaten all day, everything for grabbing. I was so profoundly, disgustingly grateful for the world, for each next day, for each new thing. I listened to “Bloodbuzz Ohio” for the first time, and I wanted to put myself inside its majestic, wallowing, self-mocking sound, the floor-dragging baritone of the lead singer whose voice sounded like a car driving with the brake on and the unreasonably optimistic backbeat pulling it forward all the same.
This push-pull of the music, between deadened sadness and unjustified giddiness, drove from one song to the next, each playing on repeat and giving shape to days and then weeks and then a whole section of my life. I spent that summer scheduling the tutoring work I did to coincide with the National’s tour schedule. I took jobs in the same cities where the band would be, and saw them play shows across most of Western Europe. A friend who I’d met around the same time came with me to most of these, and we built our friendship like a reverse-motion house on fire, pouring into each other the most intimate details of our life, all soundtracked by this band with whom we were both newly obsessed. It’s still the reference point for how we know each other, the sound under the conversation, the thread that ties things together, a code language.
Something about the National has always felt like an escape, which is at face value an odd thing to say about a band whose subject is mainly sadness and anxiety. It’s both easy to and fun to make jokes about this band being the saddest band, the saddest dads, a band full of sad dads who really love being sad. All of these jokes are accurate: The National is a band whose form and content is sadness. But the reason this band’s music seemed to act as an opening of a pressure valve on my own sadness and anxiety and that of my friend is that it’s about sadness rather than grief. Their music is the difference between the two, the luxury of sadness versus the hard edges of grief.
Sadness spreads like a stain, sadness feels bodied and over-sensitized and ringing, like the first time you got high when you were a teenager, when you lay down on the carpet and nothing had ever been better or more important than the carpet. Sadness often acts as a temporary escape from grief. There are lots and lots of things worse in human reality than a broken heart or an unfaithful lover, and all of them are absent in the National’s music. That’s so much of what’s wonderful in it. Its sadness is a reckless, obliterative escape from the larger griefs of the world, focusing in on the overwhelming, petty, selfish concerns of the privileged heart. This music is enjoyable, squishy, and opulent in all its bad-hearted moping. Nothing in this music howls; everything oozes, everything has another drink and swoons into bed, sad and horny.
They’re a profoundly horny band, too, as much as they’re sad, which gets talked about less but is equally if not more the draw for their fans year after year and album after album. Much discussion and writing about the National skids over the fact that a whole lot of their songs are about one kind of weird sex or another. They probably say various words for “penis” in their lyrics more than all other comparable bands combined. The National’s music is about sex in an unglamorous, desultory way that speaks to how often sex is neither romantic nor sexy, just as their songs about love appeal to the part of us that knows that love is essentially more frightening than it is kind, a claw that scratches us down to the ugly parts laid bare. Every time the National sing a declaration of love, it sounds like a threat, and the most romantic-sounding song on the album is a warning of horrors yet to come. A lot of music thinks that sex is like riding a motorcycle and believing you won’t ever die when in fact it’s the opposite; sex isn’t rock and roll, and neither are the National.
The thing about having a long relationship with a band is that it signposts one’s life, and sometimes the way it does so is profoundly uncomfortable. I waited a few days to listen to the songs that came out in advance of this record because I wasn’t sure I was ready to perform the taking-stock that I knew would inevitably happen, the way the continuance of the things we love drags us back to who we were at every point in our life when we loved them. Returning to this band when they put out new music is like returning to an old friend: deeply familiar and wholly uncomfortable. It’s a reckoning with the changing self, the truths we look away from and the threads that pull continuance through a life, the things we have lost, failed to maintain, or tried to slough off.
When I finally put it on, though, the record seemed to be about these very sort of difficult and imperfect returns, these strange and embarrassing continuances. The songs echoed these same ideas. Look at how you have been listening to this music for so long, all while struggling with all the same things, all while trying to find some parts of yourself and your existence meaningful and having some moderate mix of success and failure. Isn’t it ridiculous really that we’re all still here doing this same thing, still, even as age, even as we get old, even as time moves on and we should be better than this? And yet we still aren’t, and here’s another record.
The thing about loving a band is that they get older at the same rate that you do, and at some point, the music starts to be about the fact that maybe you should be too old to care about all this same stuff, and yet you still do.
The lyrics to many of the songs echo these uncomfortable returns. “Day I Die,” opens with, “I don’t need you, I don’t need you, anyway I barely ever see you anymore.” I thought of the best friend I made listening to High Violet seven years ago. While we’re still as close as we always have been, we don’t have the kind of friendship where we need to talk each day or even every month. The song seemed to be about that very thing, knowing someone and loving them while your lives have changed around you, when things have become less bright and less urgent. “I’ll Still Destroy You,” does something similar, with a haunting refrain that tugs out the sticky, bitterly delicious sentiment of seeing an old lover for the first time in a while, the strange sense of still wanting someone just like you always did is a crooked kind of homecoming.
The day after Sleep Well Beast came out, I woke up to a text from this same friend. He was in New York, and heartbroken, and knew it’d been a while but could he come over and talk it out? We sat on the couch all day, messy and sad and indulgent and human, and eventually, we got from talking about our hearts to talking about the new album, and then back again, and again, in the same old easy language, in the same luxurious wallowing sadness. The continuance was ridiculous; it defied ideas of aging and maturity, the imperative to get over things and get better, to gather one’s self up and get one’s shit together. We returned to the same terrain, the same petty and compelling questions of betrayal and loss, the dissonances of love and desire, of safety and contentment, the bleak humor of the space between what we want and how it feels when we get it. Perhaps things don’t get better, says the National’s new album, and perhaps there’s something delicious about that. Look at all of us still here, look at the ongoings, despite the odds, of all our bad leaking hearts.