This week I’ve been reading up articles and interviews about The National in anticipation of High Violet, which comes out later this month but was, last week, streaming in its entirety on the New York Times page. First impression? Its’ fantastic. Not the loose pop album the band set out to make at all, High Violet is darker, murkier, and far more unsettling than Boxer or Alligator.
The NYT article that goes with the stream is pretty good too, at least when providing a window into the obsessive aesthetic sparring that went into the construction of the new record.
Less successful is author Nicholas Dawidoff’s interpretation of Matt Berninger’s lyric-writing process:
Matt carries around a notebook that he fills with fragments of language, single lines he invents like “terrible love and I’m walking with spiders.” “The challenge,” he says, “is to write the rest of a song that holds up to that feeling of anxious, nervous love.” He likes images that are blurry and suggestive, snapshots that don’t exactly mean anything but allow the listener to feel that they do.
I’m with Dawidoff until the last clause. Blurry and suggestive, Berringer’s lyrics often feel like the juiciest lines plucked from an ass-kicker of a short story. His lines point to a feeling/story/situation that gets fleshed out, not by more words, but by the music itself. Instead of merely detailing a scene to pass time in a verse, phrases like “Stand inside an empty tuxedo with grapes in my mouth waiting for Ada” point outward, inviting the listener to keep the scene going long after the song has moved beyond grapes. This is to say, the lyrics stick the way good literature often does and good pop music rarely does.
So are Dawidoff and I in agreement, then, when he calls the lyrics “snapshots that don’t exactly mean anything but allow the listener to feel that they do”? He might say so, but no. Stuck in a binary in which something either means or doesn’t, Dawidoff underestimates what Berringer is pulling off.
Slippery term, meaning. Berringer’s lyric (“terrible love and I’m walking with spiders”) is a line that, according to Berringer, is chasing an emotion, specifically “anxious, nervous love.” The “meaning,” then comes from what the words do to you, the goosebumps pricking your neck.
How could the line “mean” more? Well. I suppose there could be literal spiders and one of the spiders could bite the singer and there could be a verse about visiting the doctor to get the spider bite looked at. “It’s a terrible bite and I’m swelling from spiders” wouldn’t be complicated but would at least mean. Spiders = spiders. Don’t like that? Well then how about we turn the spiders into a tidy simile, and change the line to, “The anxiety over this romance crawls over my back like spiders” or, hmm, OK, metaphor, “This romance is a spider crawling on my back.” Nope. Still awful.
Why is “terrible love and I’m walking with spiders” a superior line? Not because it “doesn’t exactly mean anything” but because it means many things. It means an infinite number of things, really, since it invites the listener to bring her imagination to the table. And not just in a fill-in-the-scene “What’s the guy with the grapes in his mouth going to do next?” kind of way. There’s a deeper, less avoidable emotional imagination at work. The line combined with the music will make you feel something whether you want it to or not, and that something will be different than what your boyfriend feels when he hears it, sitting in the car next to you.
Which means that the listener is not allowing herself to be pleasantly duped, as Dawidoff suggests, but is instead (knowingly or otherwise) enjoying one of the art’s great pleasures–participation.
Again and again, I’ve observed a huge divide between musicians/writers/artists and listeners/readers/viewers over the problem of meaning. A dude writes a song with the line, “terrible love and I’m walking with spiders,” and the listener asks the dude, “What does it mean?” And the dude, depending on his predilection for playfulness, says, “Nothing” or “Lots” or “What do you think it means?” or “It’s trying to capture a feeling” or, most truthful and potentially irritating of all, “It means: terrible love and I’m walking with spiders.” The listener goes, “Fine, don’t tell me,” and walks away wishing the dude had said, “The spiders represent marriage.”
Why all the unsatisfied listeners/readers/viewers? Usual suspects include high school English teachers who act like books are codes to crack, dummy spoon-fed Hollywood dreck, museum placards, a fast-moving latte tech culture that likes things tidy, sexy vampires, Dan Brown, and dogs. And it is all those things–especially dogs–but binary meaning so murky-deep in our culture, we’re going to have to refute it again and again to even believe ourselves that there’s a more complicated level on which things can mean.
“Terrible love and I’m walking with spiders” means “terrible love and I’m walking with spiders.” I swear I’m not messing with you.