I haven’t always loved the National. Initially, their music struck me as deeply unnecessary, a pleasant but forgettable soundtrack for Subaru showrooms and Baby-Björn sojourns. But I didn’t hate them—it’s very hard to hate the National.
How do you summon antipathy for something so benign and familiar? My first impression, which might match yours: These are dudes who sit in coffee shops scribbling piquant quips into Moleskine notebooks when they aren’t reading the later works of John Cheever. I thought they seemed like callow youths trying on suits that still wouldn’t fit for a few years—nerdy guys desperate to ascend to a perch of coolness from which they might drop devastating pith onto the beautiful people who used to ignore them.
They reminded me of myself. They reminded me of my friends. And who wants to be reminded of those things? I wanted transcendence, deliverance, ecstasy, pain. I didn’t need a rock band to take a pale blue highlighter to my piddling worries about student loans and overgrown front lawns and quiet fights with my wife. I was young enough to believe there was something on the other side of those dumb little moments that make up a comfortable life—a dark and delightful realm of chaos and bliss that I hadn’t yet figured out how to access. I wanted a dating app that would take me there. I wanted a drug that would take me there. I wanted music that would take me there.
These are the entitled desires of a privileged dude—a dude who has the world and will not be content until he also has whatever is beyond that world. A dude who hasn’t noticed that his cozy little life is also weird and scary and fun, already teeming with whispering demons and gleaming portals into the sublime.
When I checked back in with the National after the release of 2010’s High Violet, I discovered the band had beat me to the realization that this life of mine—this fairly easy life that was also pretty hard, because life is just pretty hard—was not going to yield some startling truth that would scorch every mundane thing and deliver me to a higher plane of awesomeness. The National has grown into their grown-up outfits by embracing what was true all along: They’re the kind of guys who would “put a little something in [their] lemonade” and then “fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults.”
They are, like many music dudes, mostly boring. They know it—at least, lead singer and primary lyricist Matt Berninger knows it. He doesn’t light up a room. He cries when he listens to Nevermind. He worries about his kid. He’s bad at arguing with his partner. On the band’s new album, Sleep Well Beast, he mixes weed with wine. I always thought little details like that didn’t add up to much, but I was very wrong. Glory and terror and wonder and joy and despair live inside those minor things. Sometimes one of those things is a Subaru. And sometimes it is so fucking loud in there. I don’t actually own a Subaru, but I love the National.