There are plenty of bands living in Brooklyn, but most of them don’t headline the new 19,000-seat Barclays Center when they play a hometown show. And most of them definitely don’t do it while their frontman croons a lyric like, “It’s a common fetish / For a doting man / To ballerina on the coffee table / Cock in hand.” The National does both. You can’t read a press piece about the band and its fantastic new record, Trouble Will Find Me, without reading about the glacial pace of the National’s success—it took almost 15 years of workhorse touring, much of it in obscurity, for the group to become indie rock’s current father figures. The band’s music, as most of those articles will also note, isn’t revolutionary or particularly flashy in its own right, just thoroughly well-composed and painstakingly crafted to the point where seamlessness can be mistaken for something staid by listeners without much of an attention span.
The real draw, the thing that sets the National apart as a subtly subversive and calmly brilliant band, is in Matt Berninger’s lyrics. (And, yes, the rich baritone that delivers them.) While most of his similarly successful peers—who shall remain nameless—are writing ENGL101 screeds that translate to “The suburbs, they’re bad!” or taking a quick break from self-pleasuring to rhyme balaclava with horchata, Berninger’s lyrics marry razorwire wit, plainspoken clarity, and evocative surrealisms to create a voice at once immediately relatable and pleasantly mysterious. Choosing his best lyrical work is a game in subjectivity, but I’ve tried to pick songs that stand out from start to finish. Leave your own favorite lines in the comments thread.
Matt Berninger is a family man, and much of the strength in his writing comes from his keen observation of the small, daily details—both physical and psychological—that compose the ins-and-outs of a longterm relationship. His wife, Carin Besser (a former fiction editor at The New Yorker, in case you’re wondering how cool these two must be as parents), casts a lovely shadow on much of the National’s material, though usually in an indirect, emotionally diffuse manner (“I Need My Girl”, “Slow Show”). But on Alligator, Berninger creates a recurring character with a version of his wife’s name, a presence that serves as a catch-all for his speakers’ complaints and desires. Think Henry in Berryman’s Dream Songs.
With “Karen”, Berninger’s narrator adopts a swaggering, fuck-all attitude—“Karen, put me in a chair / Fuck me, and make me a drink”—but even he doesn’t have the heart to fully commit to the rule. Really, this is a song about the poses men take when they feel threatened by vulnerability in love. The speaker wants to impress Karen and, it seems, to make up for a past wrong, but he’s not quite sure how to do it: “I’m really trying to shine here, / I’m really trying / You’re changing clothes and closing windows on me all the time.” He wants to play the protective role, the stereotypically masculine one, keeping her safe “out alone in America” and promising to “protect the nest”, though he can’t help but appeal for help to the real paternal figure in her life. “Karen, we should call your father”, writes Berninger in one of his best verses, “Maybe it’s just a phase / He’ll know the trick to get a wayward soul change his ways / It’s a common fetish / For a doting man / To ballerina on the coffee table / Cock in hand.” What better way to make sure she knows you’re really a man than to show her right there in the living room, right? But for all his macho posing, the speaker’s most telling line is a bit of direct pleading: “Karen, believe me / You just haven’t seen my good side yet.”
Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
Second to “Karen”, Tennessee Williams might be the person who pops up most often in Berninger’s lyrics—more on that later. Here, “Don’t Swallow the Cap” makes something of the (probably apocryphal) story of the playwright’s death, where he supposedly choked on the pharmaceutical cap he’d loaded with a midnight barbiturate snack. (Surprise: it was actually the Seconal that did it.) Still, the advice Berninger gives in the chorus is solid enough: “Dead seriously / Don’t swallow the cap / Pat yourself on the back.” It’s a vivid image—sad, morbid, and a little funny. In other words, perfect for a National song.
The rest of the track sees Berninger unleashing a seemingly endless supply of killer couplets, his delivery barely keeping pace with drummer Bryan Devendorf’s tempo—a touch of desperation lost if you’re just reading the liner notes, and another reason why these are lyrics, not poems. “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, like all of Berninger’s best material, isn’t narrative so much as tonal, weaving together disparate images to create a cohesive emotional atmosphere—this one’s all earnest yearning, a desire for connection and a willingness to drop all pretense to find it. “Everything I love is on the table,” he writes, “Everything I love is out to sea.” Elsewhere, you could cherrypick any two lines and find yourself with an imminently quotable (hello, Twitter) take on both isolation and hope, from “When they ask what do I see / I say, ‘A bright white beautiful heaven hanging over me’” to “I have only two emotions / Careful fear and dead devotion / I can’t get the balance right”, to the simple affirmation in the track’s chorus, where Berninger’s speaker picks himself up. “I’m not alone,” he sings, “I’ll never be / And to the bone / I’m evergreen.” He doesn’t sound entirely convinced, but it wouldn’t be nearly as moving if he were.
Cherry Tree (2004)
Berninger’s baritone can dip into menace easily enough, and he puts that trick to good use on “All Dolled-Up in Straps”. “I think I saw you riding in a car,” he growls, “You looked happy for a woman / Black fingers in your mouth and a white / And a white pearl choker.” That “for a woman” has a vague sexual aggression to it—can a woman only be so happy, or is the implication she wouldn’t know if she were?—and the image of fingers-in-mouth does away with the vagueness. Those fingers, the pearl choker, two hints of asphyxiation—the woman in this dude’s gaze would do best to get far away, and quickly. “My head plays it over and over”, he says to himself, a stalker’s obsessive vision. He’s obsessed, too, with presentation, the way she walks with her “hips like a boy’s” backlit by how “the sun fell behind you / And never stood up.” You can feel the desire in that latter image, the slightly worshipful nature of it, and that subtle force behind the voyeurism makes it that much creepier. Berninger’s more than willing to explore the darker sides of human connections, and it pays off just as well as his more wistful material.
High Violet (2010)
Much of Berninger’s writing on High Violet has a dreamlike quality to it, the cityscapes of New York and Los Angeles (his two homes) as if seen through a smudged car window or a foggy sleep or both. “Little Faith” and “Lemonworld” have the men in his songs drifting through New York at a remove from its crowds, surrounded by but disconnected from the city’s swirling mass of bodies and traffic. “Conversation 16” zooms in on the sprawl of “the silver city”, apparently Los Angeles, during a “Hollywood summer”. The song tracks the growing despair of a couple in the Californian sun, the influence of the Hollywood hills creeping into their daily life, turning their daily relationship into a series of performances: “Meet our friends out for dinner / When I said what I said, I didn’t mean anything / We belong in a movie / Try to hold it together ‘til our friends are gone / We should swim in a fountain / Do not want to disappoint anyone.” The speaker can only communicate with his love in interior monologues—“You’d never believe the shitty thoughts I think”—or while she’s asleep next to him—“Tell you miserable things after you are asleep.”
Berninger blends this emotional straight-talk with evocative surrealisms (“live on coffee and flowers”, “fall asleep in your branches”), which contribute to the woozy atmosphere of the song without spelling things out too plainly. The song’s chorus, both laughably dumb and cuttingly self-deflating, sums up the fear at the heart of he and his lover’s distance in a perfectly Hollywood-stupid metaphor: “I was afraid,” he sings, “I’d eat your brains / ‘Cause I’m evil.” But then, you never want to settle for zombie love, do you?
“All the Wine” boasts what might be Berninger’s most famous lyric among his band’s faithful: “I’m a birthday candle in a circle of black girls / God is on my side.” It’s a kind of litmus test. If the pure suggestive weirdness of that line gets your blood going, invest in the National’s discography. If it’s just nonsense to you, move on, there’s nothing to see here. Of course, it is nonsense, but it’s also suggestive weirdness. You could get into Berninger’s taste for John Ashbery, who’s made a career out of creating meaning out of nonsense, or you could find his own explanation of the line (he lived in a largely black neighborhood in New York, and as a gawkily tall white man, he felt initially out of place but then found himself more than welcome) in interviews, but none of that info comes bundled with Alligator’s liner notes. Instead, we just have a wonderfully strange line, something Berninger manages to wrangle into a cheer for himself, a burst of self-affirmation.
“All the Wine” does that, over and over again. Next time a friend tries to pigeonhole the National as navelgazing bummer rock, play “All the Wine” as loudly as you can. Berninger creates a veritable manifesto of self-love: from the easily digestible (“I’m a festival / I’m a parade”) to the nicely imagistic (“So sorry, but the motorcade will have to go around me this time”) to the tongue-in-cheek (“I’m a perfect piece of ass / Like every Californian”). In other words, “All the Wine” functions entirely on the guy’s ability to pen an image, to turn the abstract into something recognizable and palpable. A bottle of wine to celebrate yourself works pretty well.