This Great Recession took a while to hit my life, and the life of the people I know. In early 2009, I was receding for reasons not entirely economic, and around my neighborhood near downtown Columbus, Ohio, nothing looked very different. Maybe, like too many others, I expected a quick turnaround. Among my friends, optimism about the election of Barack Obama mixed with relief that Ohio had atoned for its massive failure in the 2004 election, manipulated though that may have been.
If I’m to be honest, though, the truth is that the poor were still poor, and the middle class was getting poorer. The homeless still lingered outside the brick-worked Faith Mission that I passed every day on my way to work. At the time I also worked at Ohio State, where nothing on the surface ever seems to change very much: some new medical building is always being built, and the football program is either in trouble, about to be in trouble, or dealing with its recent troubles. Many of my students there and elsewhere still could barely afford their books and supplies without the credit cards they’d practically been handed on arrival in the fall. And among my circle of friends, if we all still had our jobs, well, none of us were getting any richer.
In the spring of 2010, I noticed something new: itinerant men and sometimes women poring through the 60-gallon trash bins in the alley next to my apartment. Where I lived at the time was on the border of a wealthier neighborhood, walking distance from the High Street straightaway of boutiques called the Short North. Occasionally I’d see people Dumpster-diving closer to that neighborhood. They had never come so far west. Now they were prowling in pick-ups beaten to hell, rusted and stacked high with what looked to me like junk, idling while the driver or a passenger leaned forward on invariably gray and scuffed tennis shoes and efficiently sifted through the trash of residents like me who were only a straight-job away from doing the same.
Over the next few months, a friend of mine lost his job as a computer tech; another was let go from a public television station. In Pennsylvania my father’s business dipped, flattened out. My rent, which had never increased, shot up $50. My aunt took a second job, waiting tables at night. What struck me, and sticks with me now, was the feeling that anything could happen, and if it did, there was nowhere to go except down. If the floor fell out, the drop would be steep.
That same quiet anxiety pulses through The National’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio”: the busy drumbeat tripping forward; those pressing and syncopated piano notes; Matt Berninger’s worried, tired voice. Only in the song’s final moments does an electric guitar start punching through, skittish and insistent, as if it’s been holding back the entire time and can’t contain itself any longer.
The song begins like a love song. “Stand up straight at the foot of your love, I/lift my shirt up,” Berninger croons in front of cold, lush keyboards and guitars. A normal, catchy pop tune with a melancholy center, you might think, until Berninger sings, “I was carried/to Ohio in a swarm of bees/I never married/but Ohio don’t remember me”—which is when the song slips its skin. Or to paraphrase something a drunk in a dive bar in Athens, Ohio once described to me, when the song lifts off, away from the traps it laid out for itself.
It’s not so easy for the man in the song, or the people he knows, to do the same. They’re bound in a way the song can transcend, or at least seem to. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” works against any literal interpretation—its lyrics are scattershot, like lines from different movies that somehow hold together—but its expression of suffering is unmistakable, even though it would float away if not for Berninger’s flattened voice.
That’s not an insult. The flatness undercuts the song’s New Wave luxuriance and any pretense at a Leonard Cohen-esque poeticism; without it, the song would drown in self-pity, melodrama and condescension when it arrives at those pivotal lines in the chorus, the ones about being trapped and paralyzed by fear and resignation and old-fashioned modernist alienation:
I still owe money/to the money/to the money I owe
I never thought about love/when I thought about home
I still owe money/to the money/to the money I owe
The floors are falling out from/everybody I know
And if the floor falls out, the drop is steep.
Cruelly, the song surges at this chorus, flirting with major chords and a swelling romance as the bottom does indeed fall out. The refrain rolls like a folk rhyme, something Woody Guthrie might have written on the rails, and, for me at least, the song’s displacement—the way its lyrics don’t quite hold together—suddenly stretches out across time and place, as wide and long as its droning keyboards and horns are deep. I’m all places at once. On a highway bridge above the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the treetops so verdantly green I imagine it’s what the country looked like at its bloody birth. On a snow-besieged street in the Coventry neighborhood of Cleveland Heights, the wind slanted, driving, human shapes hunched inhumanly as they trudge along. Back in Columbus, on the stoop of that old apartment, faced with few and always cold options, watching silently as the pick-ups rove the alleys.
When that last line of the chorus comes around, I hear a noise I’ve probably picked up from any number of films featuring a hanging: that terrifying sound of wood-on-wood, a smooth shoosh and a finalizing clack. I think of images bordering on the cartoonish, literally: Mr. Burns’ trap door in his office, or any number of traps laid out in Looney Tunes stories, which, even when I was a child, made sense to me. Traps are laid out everywhere; you have no control over them, you can only stay awake, alert, to the point of paranoia, and hope to avoid them.
The song is a study in tensions. Being broke, lovelorn, and estranged from your home and the people you’ve left behind has never sounded so damned beautiful. (If biographical criticism is your thing, the members of The National are from Cincinnati, but formed the band in Brooklyn.) And while it may sound absurd to ask if songs about poverty need to sound poor, the track record of American pop music seems to answer “Yes”. Only soul music has successfully wedded lush arrangements of shimmering beauty to lyrics about abject poverty. Think Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, or, better yet, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and its opening deluge of strings. Those songs performed hope in the face of overwhelming economic disparity and defiance in the face of racist social systems by committing to the real presence of suffering in everyday life.
Albeit by different sounds, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” stares down any escapist ideas in a similar way. The tension between its more-robust New Wave style and its honesty is never resolved. It doesn’t have to be. There are no pat reassurances, no social arguments, no political didacticisms, only the experience of the song.
“Bloodbuzz Ohio” was released in March 2010, two months before taking its place on the album High Violet and right about the time I noticed the increase in the men trawling the alleys in my neighborhood. Since then, it’s always been on whatever listening device I have nearby—iPod, laptop, old-fashioned stereo. There are days when I play it over and over, the fade-out immediately seguing into the snare-bass-and-hi-hat opening.
I may always associate it with driving across an overpass bridge that inclines gently before it slides down into the center of Columbus. Fittingly, it’s a juncture where the street’s name changes, from Summit Street to Third Street, though I suppose they’re technically always one and the same. The view at that moment is nothing special. You’re running parallel, on your right, to the depressingly airport terminal-like Convention Center, and on your left extends I-670 and a flatland of anonymous industry. Ahead looms the city, too square and clean to have much sense of history, though of course it does.
What marks this place for me has less to do with the geography of that moment than it does the terrain I’ve passed through. Summit/Third Street runs parallel to High Street’s sequences, its North Campus working-class-meets-hipster section, the increasingly corporatized campus stretch, the briefly bombed-out stretch between Ninth and Fifth Avenue, where the posh and overpriced Short North begins. The district was recently profiled in a New York Times real estate piece that elided how itinerant and generally decent men will offer to watch your car with the understanding that you’ll pay them for their work.
The parallel vein of Summit/Third Street is less diverse; none of it attains any glamor, and what begins as working-class half-doubles in Clintonville deteriorates into campus housing for blocks before shifting into a low-income neighborhood of boarded-up, foreclosed houses. But there’s also a brand-new school that combines a traditional red-brick schoolhouse design with modern flair, and it seems to be thriving. In this predominately black neighborhood, the urge seems to be to hold on and improve, while back up north the college kids annually trash six-bedroom houses.
I’ve driven this stretch on my way downtown hundreds of times over the years. During graduate school, I lived on a side street in its northern section, close to Clintonville, and watched one afternoon as a group of kids, none of them older than 12 or 13, lingered around an abandoned, windowless car. Like a nosy old lady I peered through my blinds, wondering what the hell they were up to. A few minutes later, black smoke drifted from the front seat, and minutes after that, the car was ablaze.
The presidential candidates are already in Ohio, it seems, every other day. What’s coming are endless reiterations of the same tired clichés about the Midwest and Ohio in particular, mainly from the Right, but sometimes from the Left. Ohio is filled with honest, hard-working folks, they’ll say. Our moderation—a vestige of vaguely Puritanical beliefs and a frontier-era work ethic—will be painted as an absolute. (Never mind those meth stills down in the southeast.)
Republicans will resort to the specter of “liberal elites living on the coast” and its inverse: that those of us in between the coasts must be corn-fed, good ol’ boys-n-girls who love NASCAR second only to Jesus. That we’ll fall for anything and let anything fall on us. And that, without a doubt, if we can’t be explained by these stereotypes, we must be brooding socialists, angry at our parents, who happened across our small town’s only copy of Capital that wasn’t burned, and who just can’t wait to get on the next Megabus to Penn Station.
Political speech has, for decades, rarely been interesting in a substantive way unless it’s spoken by a politician saying something outright stupid, and even that, by way of its pervasiveness, has ceased to be very interesting. The particular sub-genre of Midwestern caricature is especially divisive and ignorant, a streamlined and cartoonish litany of ideals with only the slightest connection to the conditions on the ground.
Because of this, maybe our best hope for political expression is in art. If politicians are incapable of recognizing how ambiguous specifics lead to the universal, to connections—which is Creative Writing 101—then maybe art should just be left to do the job.
And maybe that’s why “Bloodbuzz Ohio” has burrowed its way into my skull. With its odd, loose-thread lyrics and visceral sadness, it sounds to me more honestly about a place and more honestly political than any political speech I’ve heard in, well, forever. Even if The National had no intention of it.