A whiskey baritone singer choking on his own words. Check. Moody, introspective lyrics about heartache and immeasurable suffering. Double check. Droning string arrangements drenched in murky guitar feedback tied to a dirge-like rhythm. Triple Check.
This is the musical hat trick upon which sorrow feeds.
And The National’s latest has all those ingredients, putting these Cincinnati, Ohio, transplants to Brooklyn squarely in the same musical territory as American Music Club, Morphine and, yes, Joy Division. The lyrics, as well, put Matt Berninger in the same league as Mark Eitzel and Mark Sandman. Combined, the music and lyrics on this, their fifth album, High Violet, make for a great breakup album, dripping with tinges of moody English shoegazers and ’80s New Wave à la Depeche Mode. You need to listen to this while drinking bourbon and letting your mental Rolodex flip back to the love you left behind and the one that got away.
Ah, regret. It fuels great art.
After several listenings, I realized this album plays out like a series of interconnected stories, kind of like Winesburg, Ohio, with its odd, small-town characters that Sherwood Anderson calls his “grotesques,” people with the inability to let go of an idée fixe.
The second cut off the album, “Sorrow,” sets off a triptych of pain, with its opening line: “Sorrow found me when I was young.” I don’t know why this song doesn’t lead off the album, instead of the distortion-heavy, “Terrible Love,” except maybe it starts the song cycle with the announcement that something horrible has happened in someone’s personal life. “It’s terrible love, and I’m walking with spiders.”
But then “Sorrow,” with its clean drum and guitar rhythm opens like a field of glass, laying out what this barefooted hiker must deal with: the fact he can’t let go of that terrible love.
The next two songs, “Anyone’s Ghost” and “Little Faith,” just drive that mood home, with their themes of betrayal and shattered faith, hung up on the hooks of ambivalent desire and longing. I mean, what is worse than to be “stuck in New York and the rain’s coming down and I don’t want to go anywhere” where “kicks are getting harder to find”?
These songs serve to send the narrator into withdrawal with “Afraid of Everyone,” a state of mind that can only lead to the introspective and nostalgic navel-gazing of “Bloodbuzz,” the first single off the album and a definite nod to Joy Division. Tension-filled drumming and synth wash opens to a minimal guitar-and-bass riff accompanied by the looking-back lyrics, “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees,” only to discover that Ohio doesn’t remember him. This realization leads him to conclude, “I never thought about love when I thought about home.”
And then the narrator gives us a summer idyll with disturbing undertones, in “Lemonworld.”
Now, I have to say, I read the New York Times article about this band and what they went through to make this song, the different titles, the time in the studio mixing and remixing it, trying different sounds and tweaking effects until they decided to go back to the original, simpler, rough-and-ready demo version. And when I heard this song for the first time, I thought to myself, WTF? Was it really that hard to lay down these tracks? They make the difficult look easy, and the easy agonizing.
“Runaway” follows, a song of determined obstinacy to stay put and face facts, as unpleasant as they seem: “I’ll go bravin’ anything with you swallowin’ the shine of the sun.”
And then there’s this amazing dark revelation, a recognition of self, a smattering of self-loathing and feeling of unworthiness in “Conversation 16.” After telling his love all these terrible things about himself, the singer says, “I wanna believe in everything you believe.” Wow.
More self-loathing follows with “England,” to finally arrive at the beautiful conclusion to this song cycle, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” It’s a beautiful song about forgiveness, coming to terms with what is — that is all of us, the best of us, hanging from chandeliers, string ourselves up for love.
Indeed we do. It’s what we live for.
The National: www.americanmary.com