Tag Archives: the national

The 15 Best National Songs

From Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers: Murder Me Rachel

From Alligator: Secret Meeting, Lit Up, Mr. November

From Boxer: Fake Empires, Slow Show, Apartment Story, Ada, Green Gloves

From High Violet: Bloodbuzz Ohio, Lemonworld, England, Terrible Love, Anyone’s Ghost, Little Faith

Okay, your turn.

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My “Best Inedibles of 2010” List Has Moved

to the blog powerhouse, BIG OTHER, alongside other year-end lists by Andrew Borgstrom, Eugene Lim, Kevin Prufer, Cooper Renner, and David Shields.

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Don’t be [a] bitter Anna, I know how you think.

I’ve got another mini-post about The National’s High Violet in me, but it’s based on a lyric I can’t prove exists. The National doesn’t release their lyrics officially, so when you look up their lyrics online, you’re just getting the product of a fan listening closely.

The lyric, from “Little Faith,” as I hear it, goes, “Don’t be a Bitter Anna, I know how you think / You’re waiting for Radio City to sink.” And that got me off thinking how great an unexpected article can be: By adding the word/letter “a,” Berringer adds a cruel intimacy to the line. The speaker is close enough with Anna that he has a lightly coded expression for when she’s being needlessly bitter. And that it’s followed by “I know how you think” drives the point home. The speaker discards Anna’s feelings for their predictability. Another slight jab from a lyricist full of them.

Compare that line with the one the lyric websites report, “Don’t be bitter, Anna,” which is fine, functional, but just isn’t doing the same work.

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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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RIGID RUMORS drops today.


Gabe Durham – Rigid Rumors (2009) – download the zip file here

A new album of previously uncollected remixes, 2.5 years in the making.

1. Fan in the Stands
2. Yeah Yeah Uh Uh Oo Oo Ooh
3. No Planes
4. Yoko in Idaho
5. First You Reel Me Out…
6. …Then You Cut the String
7. Ends to my Friends
8. No Beatbox in Baseball
9. Salty and Sweet Like
10. Woke Me Up
11. Prison for Jerks

http://www.mediafire.com/?wzy5znvzjl5 (192 kbps / 39 mins)

If you want to try before you buy, the whole thing is currently streaming on MySpace.

Featuring the Music of (roughly in order of descending importance): Bjork, Biggie Smalls, Radiohead, Andrew Bird, Outkast, M.I.A., Josh Ritter, the Swell Season, Madonna, Glen Phillips, The National, TV on the Radio, LCD Soundsystem, Damien Rice, The Beatles, Blind Melon, Animal Collective, Beyonce, The Proclaimers, John Lennon, The Traveling Wilburys, Kanye West, Spoon, Pavarti Khan, of Montreal, Daft Punk, David Garza, Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos, Cake, The Mountain Goats, Rilo Kiley, They Might Be Giants, Wednesday Night Worship, Dave Brubeck Quartet, Sufjan Stevens, Biodome 5, Simon and Garfunkel, The Arcade Fire, Ella Fitzgerald, Ben Folds, David Gray, Wilco, Goldspot, Klaxons, The Wrens, The Decemberists, Beck, The Waifs.

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New Remix: Going Back to Cali

Biggie Smalls meets the National (slowed to a crawl)–bi-coastal cock-posturing has never sounded this seasonally affected. This mix may not find Biggie as happy as he claims to be, but these verses still never fail to give me a name-check high. (Fatburger? Roscoe’s?? 818??? Linens N’ Things???? I’ve been there!)

Gabe Durham – Going Back to Cali (Myspace, again)

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