A Festival, a Parade: The National’s Best Lyrics

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.


10. “Karen”
Alligator (2005)

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.”


9. “Don’t Swallow the Cap”
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.


8. “All Dolled-Up in Straps”
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.


7. “Conversation 16”
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?


6. “All the Wine”
Alligator (2005)

“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.

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5. “Slow Show”
Boxer (2007)

Berninger’s made it clear he still doesn’t feel like a natural performer, let alone completely comfortable as the frontman for an amphitheater rock band. “Slow Show” takes that reflexive introversion and sketches it beautifully. Berninger’s speaker spends the entirety of a party just wanting to escape back home to his lover: “I want to hurry home to you / Put on a slow, dumb show for you / And crack you up.” His writing here is unusually straightforward, a conscious decision by a careful writer. The plainspoken quality draws attention to itself, its sentiment one Berninger feels sure of — and one that he wants so strongly — enough to put it directly. Its lack of pretension is touching. It wouldn’t work nearly as well if Berninger didn’t spend the song’s verses illuminating the character of his social anxiety: “Standing at the punch table swallowing punch / Can’t pay attention to the sound of anyone / A little more stupid, a little more scared / Every minute, more unprepared.” Later, he asks a question familiar to any man who’s ever felt exhausted by his body’s constant attention to sexual attraction, even in moments of emotional turmoil: “Can I get a minute and not be nervous,” he asks, “and not thinking of my dick?” But the song’s final sentiment makes it clear no one else could compete for his affections in any real way. “You know I dreamed about you”, he writes, in another moment of direct clarity, “For 29 years / Before I saw you.” He finishes: “I missed you for / For 29 years.” There’s a happy ending in that.


4. “City Middle”
Alligator (2005)

Another song about wishing for escape, though “City Middle” finds its strength in its half-asleep, drunken quality, the way its images seem to stop just short of total clarity. Berninger’s trying to make sense of his recollections — “I have weird memories of you / Wearing long red socks and red shoes / I have weird memories / I have weird memories of you / Pissing in a sink, I think” — but can’t quite pull the pieces together. The morning after, maybe, a haze of semicoherent memories, buried in drink. And drink is the problem, with the speaker “on a good mixture” and Karen (here she is again) saying, “I’m overwhelmed… / I think I’m like Tennessee Williams, / I wait for the click / I wait, but it doesn’t kick in.” She’s referring to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where ruined alcoholic Brick drinks and drinks until he feels “the click”, the momentary peace alcohol brings to him. No click, no respite. Karen wants that break from reality, where Berninger’s speaker wants to “go gator around the warm beds of beginners”, an image of sexual aggression — alligators will wait for their prey with their mouths wide open until an unsuspecting creature crawls right between their jaws, and Berninger’s speaker seems to want to prey upon sexually inexperienced women in the same way. His plan: show up, drink, and wait. But then there’s that wish to get away from it all, for Karen to steal him away to “the nearest city middle, where they hang the lights”. Good luck to both of them.


3. “Lemonworld”
High Violet (2010)

Berninger has explained what, exactly, a “lemonworld” is elsewhere, but he did well enough in the song itself. Whatever the meaning of the phrase itself, it represents a safe place, the type of destination the characters of “City Middle” are looking for — but this time, Berninger’s figured out that you need to get away from the city, not deeper into it, to find that escape. “So happy I was invited,” he writes, “Gave me a reason to get out of the city / See you inside watching swarms on TV / Living and dying in New York, it means nothing to me.” He doesn’t seem to feel despair in his city life so much as total exhaustion. “I’m too tired to drive anywhere, anyway right now,” he confesses a few lines later, “Do you care if I stay?” The “lemonworld”, with its unnamed “you and your sister”, is a place where he can come to terms with that depletion, admit it, and possibly recoup his emotional capital.

As usual, Berninger writes about depression — the absence of feeling, not the presence of sadness — with crystalline precision. “I guess I’ve always been a delicate man,” he realizes now, “Takes me a day to remember a day / I didn’t mean to let it get so far out of hand / I was a comfortable kid / But I don’t think about it much anymore.” And also as usual, he weaves his more emotionally expansive lyrics together with more purely imagistic, evocative lines to help give them a mysterious weight. Here, he tells the sisters, “You can put on your bathing suits / And I’ll try to find something on this thing that means nothing”, and asks them to “Lay me on the table, put flowers in my mouth / And we can say that we invented a summer loving torture party.” The total picture is one impossible to totally pin down or explain away, and it’s endlessly more poignant as a result.


2. “Mistaken for Strangers”
Boxer (2007)

There’s a flipside to the National’s success: for me, Berninger did his best writing when fueled by white-collar angst, still working a 9-to-5 while waiting for the band to take off in a big way. “Mistaken for Strangers” — and Boxer, as a whole — crystallizes the dull, starched shirt ennui that’s an inevitable byproduct of America’s ambitious corporate culture. In the song, Berninger marries thwarted dreams at work with thwarted dreams in adulthood at large, writing a powerful — and powerfully sad — vision of the isolation waiting outside of college and midway up the corporate ladder. “You’ll get mistaken for strangers / By your own friends / When you pass them at night / Under the silvery, silvery Citibank light,” writes Berninger in the chorus.

And why not — you won’t be yourself anymore, Berninger implies, after too many days at the office. It’s no naïve hippie critique or punk sloganeering but something much more frightening: an intimate knowledge of the deadening effects of unsatisfying work. He writes of the loss of self-ownership: “You have to do it running / But you’ll do anything that they ask you to.” Later, in a line indebted to Jonathan Ames’s Wake Up, Sir!, he writes possibly my favorite image in the National’s catalog with “Showered and blue-blazered / Fill yourself with quarters”. It’s a mechanistic image, a perfectly attired worker feeding coins into himself to keep himself going. With none of the self-actualization afforded by working a job you actually enjoy, you’re left with a centerless life, approximating emotions to approximate connections with other people: “Make up something to believe in your heart of hearts / So you have something to wear on your sleeve of sleeves.”

And if this already weren’t material rich enough, Berninger adds a strange religious element to the striving here. His worker sees a vision of an angel, possibly rescuing someone from the type of life he wants to escape: “And you swear / You just saw a feathery woman / Carry a blindfolded man through the trees.” But Berninger simultaneously rejects the presence of a benevolent force behind it all, writing, “Oh, you wouldn’t want an angel watching over you / Surprise surprise, they wouldn’t want to watch”. After all, the show would be boring to them, too, just “another un-innocent, elegant fall / Into the un-magnificent lives of adults.” Who needs a drink?


1. “Brainy”
Boxer (2007)

“Brainy” takes the most tried-and-true rock ’n’ roll subject — unrequited love — and turns it into something freshly powerful. Berninger strikes a perfect balance between the strange and the relatable, the puzzling and the direct, and the song seems to unfold into layers so deep you could hardly reach your arms all the way into its center. “I’ve been dragging around,” Berninger sings, “From the end of your coat for two weeks / You keep changing your fancy, fancy mind / Every time / I decide to let go.” Those few lines do a better job capturing the push-pull dynamic of a dying relationship than most songwriters manage over a whole career, let alone an album or a single song. The speaker wants out of a toxic love, but he can’t let it drop until his lover lets him. This, we understand, is not a good place to be.

But he encourages it. “You know I keep your fingerprints,” writes Berninger in a trademark burst of surrealist suggestion, “In a pink folder on / The middle of my table.” It’s a beguiling image of obsession, better for not making much sense on the literal level, instead relying on the emotional undercurrents of the line — creepy in its invasiveness but also suggestive of being captive to this person’s power, the amount of psychic space “you” occupies in his mind. See how it loses its power when it’s explained? Berninger knows this, and he brushes right up against the literal before he backs away. It’s the single most powerful technique in his writing.

Elsewhere, we get fantastic images of emotional manipulation and confusion: “Everything you say is swirling / Everything you say has water under it.” Been there, buddy. You can’t get a clear fix on things, a moment of clarity, a burst of focus. There’s too much motion, too many depth below what seems at first to be a solid surface. It’s his lover’s refusal to either totally accept him or reject him that keeps the speaker on edge here, trailing from the end of that coat. “You might need me more than you think you will,” he implores. The saddest thing is, he doesn’t know whether that’s really true.