I hate that goddamn band. For about five years those words have popped to mind or spit out of my lips whenever someone mentions the National, the Brooklyn-based rock group whose sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, came out last week.
It dates to the first time I heard “Fake Empire,” the breakout single from 2007’s Boxer, which led to 2010’s half-million-selling, critically beloved album, High Violet.* As far as tens of thousands of fans are concerned, this cerebral, downbeat but expansive, musically adept ensemble’s new record makes its entrance on a red carpet strewn with rose petals.
But I hate that goddamn band. If someone doesn’t stop me I’ll go on to call them portentous, monotonous, self-conscious, and deficient in character and eccentricity. In an admiring Under the Radar review of the new album, Ryan E.C. Hamm wrote, “Overall, Trouble Will Find Me is another accomplished entry for a band that doesn’t seem to know how to do anything else.” To which I’d reply: exactly.
The National makes me feel that rock music, like much of American literature and visual art before it, has died and gone to graduate school. The band delivers certifiable Quality-with-a-capital-Q, a perfect product of the English and music departments—the way that Lady Gaga is a perfect product of the semiotics department and an MBA program, though I definitely prefer Lady Gaga. At my most extreme, I’d even claim that the National reflects the way social and economic stratification are narrowing the space for cultural free agency and rewarding artists who straightforwardly serve either the libido of the mass market or the neurotic narcissism of the privileged classes.
I know that’s an unfair load to pile on a fine band that many people enjoy. It’s also probably a rationalization for a more gut-level dislike. Which catches me in an ideological contradiction.
In recent years, most people, and critics in particular, have become more live-and-let-live about one another’s varying musical tastes. Teen-pop, dance music, metal, and even Phil Collins, to name a few frequent targets of scorn, are all accorded their place. Dump on Kanye or Ke$ha or Justin Bieber and watch how quickly we critics will come back at you. This may represent a swing of the pendulum back to pop writing’s roots in questioning the divide between high art and supposed trash. Or it may be because of MP3s and YouTube exposing us all to more material, or something more socially complex.
Whatever the cause, I have been a cheerleader for this shift to “poptimism.” I’ve even written a whole book about why it matters not to be contemptuous of, say, Celine Dion. So I’m well aware that if you engage with almost any segment of culture that other people hold dear you’ll find meaning and value there.
That’s what the National’s very reasonable fans say to me when I sneer—“Yeah, I know a lot of people think they’re dull, but if you really listen you’ll hear how much is going on …” The version that gave me most pause came from Owen Pallett, the brilliant solo performer (formerly under the sobriquet Final Fantasy) and close collaborator with Arcade Fire, the Mountain Goats, Grizzly Bear, Beirut, and others. In a Facebook thread where a few of us were disparaging the band, he piped in: “The National is the ultimate ‘They suck! except for that one song’ band, and that song is different for everyone. I’m pretty sure I could put together a mix tape of National songs that would convince any hater.”
My first impulse was to ask him to send me that mix tape. My second was to say, “Shut up! I hate that goddamn band!” I went with the latter.
In the end, it simply seems too repressive and stultifying to demand that we give up entirely on the fundamental pop pleasure of taking a side. Too often that instinct has manifested itself in discarding important genres, or valid modes such as sentimental or aggressive music, and especially in masking a social prejudice as an aesthetic one—hating artist x as a stand-in for hating “the kind of people who listen to x.” In this case, though, I’m the kind of person who listens to the National—adult, white, middle-class, liberal-artsy. If the competition is merely intramural, merely Beatles-versus-Stones, I get to choose my colors.
Owen was right: If I repeatedly listened to the Best of the National I would grow to appreciate the ways the rhythmic and melodic sides of the band circle each other like bull and matador to produce a dramatic tension, or the dialectic between pained sincerity and sardonic self-deprecation in singer Matt Berninger’s crafty lyrics. Going back and playing the past few albums I felt it happening: I noticed how deeply Berninger has absorbed Leonard Cohen, for instance, in the way that he flips from grand symbolism to mundane detail and confessions of ineptitude. Which is, as a rule, like crack to me.
I went back to “Fake Empire” and saw that what I’d taken as overobvious mockery of the Bush administration was a double-sided image of terror-fixated America as a romantic couple whose self-infatuation makes it lose hold of reality. The love song and the political critique are one. And what I’d remembered as a melodramatic horn section at the end turned out to be a looping polyrhythmic pattern reminiscent of Steve Reich—serving to underline the song’s thematic game of mirrors.
Beneath the surface, the National’s work is full of moves like that. But I still dislike the surface. I dislike the traces of a British accent in Berninger’s rich baritone (he’s from Cincinnati). I dislike the midrange restraint of most of the melodies and the sleepy midtempo pace, making it artificially thrilling when things pick up at all—as when drummer Bryan Devendorf kicks the march beat into double-time, two-thirds through the new album’s first single, “Sea of Love,” though Berninger carries on the same oh-so-stately procession. Most of all, I dislike the way many of the songs milk themselves, doubling down on their repetitions by getting denser and louder in later sections.
This is a common trait of many popular and acclaimed bands that turn me off. I call it Crescendo Rock—I’ve had similar misgivings about U2 and Radiohead, though I’ve aired them less because their fans go way more apoplectic. To me, the bands each sound like a group of guys who feel they’ve got something to say and demonstrate their significance by saying it over and over, getting louder and louder.
That’s self-evident with U2. Coldplay is the dumber sacrificial goat that few would bother to defend except as underdogs. Radiohead is subtler and harder to attack, but likewise traffic in accumulations of parts greater than their sums (like Kid A’s “The National Anthem,” to exploit a coincidence of names). I feel the same about Montreal new-music-for-rockers orchestra Godspeed You! Black Emperor—I love many of its side projects, but the big band always felt too much like an assembly line for crescendos (and post-apocalyptic decrescendos)—ironically, given its anti-capitalist credo.
Obviously you could mount up counter-examples from each group’s body of work. And it’s silly to hate crescendos on principle: I fall for them when it’s Springsteen or Prince or Arcade Fire, where they testify to outsized romanticism. But as a stylistic fallback, the crescendo seems like a show of technical force at the expense of anything more idiosyncratic and weird. A crude version of feminist musicology might hear in it a masculine paradigm of song as erection rising to climax.
Like a lot of guys, occasionally U2 and Coldplay go so overboard that they become charmingly ridiculous. The National, much less so. You might cite some of Berninger’s lyrics—I had to laugh at the new album’s “I was teething on roses/ I was in Guns N’ Noses”—but as a 21st-century Leonard Cohen he doesn’t have anything to compare to the scrambled religiosity, randy male chauvinism and synthesizer or string-section cheesiness—the general waltz on the threshold of tastelessness that makes Cohen so mesmerizingly flawed, unpredictable, and human. I don’t want just knowing digs about being screwed-up, like “when I walk into a room, I do not light it up/ fuck” (on one of the new album’s better songs, “Demons”). I want at least a chance of hearing something that actually risks being screwed-up and wrong and real, some kind of sign that, as Frank O’Hara wrote, “people don’t totally regret life.”
The last words of the last song on Trouble Will Find Me, “Hard to Find,” are borrowed from the Violent Femmes: “They can all just kiss off into the air.” The allusion is smartly deployed, but all I could think was how desperately it made me want to hear the Violent Femmes, with all their nerve endings hanging out bloody, instead of the attenuated observations of the National. Hell, if we stick to dour baritones, why not the rain-rivuleted excesses of the Tindersticks, or the European-blues decadence of Scott Walker? When seeking slowly uncoiling moodiness, I favor the less-easily-deciphered incantations of the Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter. Anything with an air of compulsive artistic inevitability, rather than thoughtful decision-making by a talented committee of professionals who then prove their passion by … launching into a crescendo.
Berninger is too self-aware not to anticipate these complaints and make them his own. On “Pink Rabbits,” he admits, “I was a television version of a person with a broken heart … I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in a park” (OK, so he hasn’t altogether left Cohen’s sexism behind). And it’s this manoeuver that makes me realize some of my impatience with The National or Radiohead is that they enact what I fear it would be like if I—as a fellow vocationally thinky type—led a rock band.
My band might diligently compose intelligent songs of verifiable pedigree and substance, layering in jokes about our own limitations, and then, anxious whether we were hitting home, say, “Right, and at the end there, let’s lean in and get a little wild.” While never venturing into any genuine wilderness. These bands remind me of myself in earnest-dude mode, thinking I can win someone over if I go on stacking point upon point instead of exposing my unreliable heart.
So maybe I hate this goddamn band because I hate my goddamn self, and I should get some goddamn therapy instead of taking it out on the goddamn National. But perhaps my reaction to the National is a healthy form of self-suspicion. It might be cathartic to reject over-familiar pictures of the world, when the artists seem like they’re getting close to the bone but never truly scrape it. There is so much more out there to hear and so little life to do it.
I am sure the National’s members are terrific people and on the side of the righteous. I get what people love about them. They probably don’t symptomize the socioeconomic imbalances of contemporary America.
But me, I still hate that goddamn band.
Correction, May 28, 2013: This article originally stated that High Violet came out in 2009.