Terrible Love and I’m Walking with Spiders

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.

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17 thoughts on “Terrible Love and I’m Walking with Spiders

  1. Matt says:

    Great post, Gabe. It doesn’t seem like you should have to explain things like this to guys who who write about music for a living, but you do an excellent job of breaking it down for him. I’m loving this album too– One of their best, I think.

  2. Gabe Durham says:

    Thanks, Matt. The article’s still worth reading. Their recording process is so engaged. They really push each other to perform.

    Yeah, great album. I’m listening to it a lot. “Lemon World” is my favorite. My friend Ben turned me on to the lyric, “Lay me on the table, put flowers in my mouth, and we can say we invented a summer lovin torture party.” Wha??? So good.

  3. Big Pinch says:

    So I’m actually a big fan of Berninger’s lyrics generally (has there been a better-lyric[k]ed song than “Mistaken For Strangers” in the last few years?) but now try and justify that “I was afraid I’d eat your brains / Cause I’m evil!” chorus in Conversation 16. Come on, try. Please. Cause I want it to work somehow but…I mean, couldn’t his wife the effing New Yorker fiction editor have just slapped some coherence into him?

  4. Gabe Durham says:

    Yeah, lyrically, that one’s way over in the horrorland other songs just hint at. But I don’t know, I sort of take the dread at face value–the brains part is hyperbolic, but the speaker is full of self- and general-loathing. “Have my head in the oven so you know where i’ll be.” Geez.

    But I love the line, “now we’ll leave the silver city / cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams.”

  5. Justin says:

    Gabe, kudos on your exacting interpretation. I particularly like how you emphasize that it’s the music which cashes out the emotional meaningfulness of Berninger’s lyrics. That’s part of what makes the National such an absorbing experience for me – his words set up little hues or shades of meanings, and the music fills everything else in. On that note, “I was afraid I’d eat your brains / Cause I’m evil” is, to my lights, a heart-wrenching line, not only because of the almost-moaned, regretful delivery, but where it fits musically in the song: the urgency building throughout the song reaches a fever pitch in the chorus, the beautiful harmonizing vocals accompanying the refrain, seem how to highlight how despairingly the chorus itself is sung. It could have become a monstrous cliche of self-loathing in anyone else’s hands but I’m enough of a hopeless fanboy to think it was done beautifully and well. And I like the word “horrorland” to describe what the song hints at, and what “Conversation 16” delivers. Have you written a review of the album? I’d be interested in reading it.

  6. Gabe Durham says:

    Justin–You’re so right about the potential for cliche there. They get so close in that song but pull it off because the dread is so earnest. Berringer’s delivery of his lyrics often have those layers, “I know this is ridiculous, here comes the clever man doing his clever routine, I feel guilty for the indulgence, but then I also sort of mean it…”

    But I always admire when people risk bombast or sentimentality because you never write something great when you’re being self-protective. (Kinda paraphrasing Chris Bachelder here.) “England” does it, too, and, for me, to even greater effect than “Conversation 16.”

    I love the album. Haven’t reviewed it.

  7. soitgoes says:

    I loved reading your blog post. thanks for sharing.

  8. Gabe Durham says:

    Hey soitgoes, thanks for saying so.

  9. Tolo says:

    Great post. Captures the perfection of “indefinite” kind of lyrics, so to say. Perfect one-liners that can mean so much, yet something different to every single person. I especially love the contradiction in the title of the song itself – >Terrible. Love.< How can love be terrible, one may ask? Is this still love? For some it is not, for some others the other way round. These lines are like a horror, grotesque joke from Matt ;)

    Thank you Gabe, subscribed

  10. gabe says:

    Hey Tolo–thanks for saying so. Yeah, even after a couple months of listening, different lines keep cropping up in my brain: “You said it’s not inside my heart / It was / You said it should tear a kid apart / It does.” Mysterious and great.

  11. Amanda says:

    The lyric “you said it should tear a kid apart/ it does” has taken on new meaning since my husband was diagnosed with cancer; we have a young son.

  12. gabe says:

    I’m very sorry to hear it, Amanda. And yeah, I think that speaks to the associative power of the line/song/album.

  13. […] The National – High Violet – album of the year, easy […]

  14. Fufunalphabetsoup says:

    Reblogged this on FufuNAlphabetSoup and commented:
    Just an interesting piece i thought I’d share

  15. […] oder „Unterwegs sein mit Spinnen“. Also habe ich das ganze mal gegoogelt. Und dann diesen tollen Post gefunden, in dem der Autor Gabe Berninger’s Interviews wiedergibt wo dieser erklärt, dass ganz viele […]

  16. kmrpops says:

    Fun essay. Best music writing I’ve read in long time. Thanks for putting words to the way I experience Music, especially TheNational.

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