It is such a common human condition to feel trapped but that one is just one small hurdle away from breaking free. That tomorrow will be the day that we will run faster, stretch out further, and finally grasp that elusive thing that we perpetually chase. We are all fighting against the current, we are all trying to escape our present confines and yet we remain stuck in place. It feels like there is no escape, like every minutia of our day-to-day life is just repeating endlessly like the playlist of an unbelievably lazy DJ. I look at all the changes I’ve made, but yet nothing I change changes anything. There is no resolution at the end of the night. We perpetually feel that we are missing something. “I don't wanna be what I'm becoming.”
Whatever happened to the ambiguity of The National’s music and its subtle ephemeral beauty that meant something unique to each person? On this record, their music has suddenly lost its former subtlety, and with that, it has lost me. To tell the truth, I did see it coming with 2013's Trouble Will Find Me which was the most explicit and unambiguous record that they had ever made up until that point.
Yes, Mr. November was formally speaking a song about Obama, but it was also about the hope in each of us and the songs on this new album are not like this – they are blatantly about one thing and one thing only. If Mr. November was about hope and a sense of longing for the future, then this record feels like being stuck in a beartrap. The National of yesteryear would never say that their songs were truly to be interpreted in only one way, and for instance, the band even refused to decipher the back vocals of Secret Meeting. Compare that with Turtleneck that has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face. The lyrics of that song cannot be seen ambiguously, and as a consequence, I cannot possibly relate it to my own life as to me, Trump, although disappointing, was still once a symbol of hope and a rebuke to brazen evil.
The old The National meant something unique to each listener and indeed I still have a strong fondness for it, because each track was special in the way that it called up my own memories, hopes, and dreams. This new one-sided polarizing and divisive unambiguous music cannot possibly hold that same beauty or appeal that was inherent in the subtlety that the band once exemplified. This record is inherently limited by the fact that it can appeal to only half the nation at best, and even less than that if one considers those who wish to escape politics through music, rather than finding it once more.
The old The National could appeal to something unique in each one of us, and in contrast to that, this record seems downright shallow. Even if one was a devoted leftist who completely and thoroughly agreed with the politics of the band, this album still could not compete with the beautiful subtlety of their older work where nearly every single lyric could evoke something personal and deep within each individual.
Interestingly, this record somewhat reflects the current state of affairs of political tribalism, wherein Americans are falsely and strategically divided into two political tribes who are under immense pressure to simply go along with everything that their team is doing. Therefore, this album represents collectivism in place of the individualism expressed in their prior albums. That which appeals to only one specific thing can never be superior to those things that can appeal to unique and different things in all who hear it. The singular unsubtle message will always lose out to the infinite limitless numinous ones of the past.
Perhaps this was unavoidable as all things must either burn out or fade away. Idols must either die young or reveal themselves to be disappointing and only human. As the old expression goes, stars appear pretty from a distance but will burn out your eyes when viewed up close. The National humanize themselves as a band here and therefore reveal themselves to be as flawed as all of us who are taking part in the political game. Their inability to remain impartial and detached from everyday struggles and concerns has killed the previous mystery and romanticism. For as long as the band remained at least seemingly impartial, their music occupied some space detached and above the petty squabbles of everyday life. Now that they have chosen to have their music be involved with that, they are torn off their edifice and become not monuments in which each man can see his own ideal self, but just ones of the many street preachers who just jump onto tall boxes and start screaming. This is another reflection of the contemporary times wherein the empty talking heads gain ever increasing amounts of influence while old and beautiful monuments are being torn down all around.
Both the town crier perched on top a crate and a marble statue are lofted above the crowd, but the latter has no agenda and only beauty. The other has only an agenda and lacks any and all beauty. One is noble and above the rest, and the other is above for only an instant until someone takes away their stolen soapbox and replaces them. By selling oneself out to an agenda and starting to scream, one loses the beauty and grace of the perpetually silent statue. A statue does not speak and holds no opinions. When something expresses a blatant bias, that thing can no longer be detached, artistic, nor magnetically attractive.
In general, definition is unbecoming, the antithesis of enigmatic mystery. When one chooses to be defined, they lose their ephemeral aspect. Only the undefined can be ephemeral and therefore objectively beautiful. It is therefore an enormous shame that The National gave all of this up for the cheap regurgitation of a political agenda. It is unbecoming and in losing their prior ambiguity, The National loses all that was ever so fantastic about them.
The town crier has no chance at ever being alluring or being an artist. The statue, although beautiful, cannot preach and shove its messages down the throats of those regarding it. It is vital that one chooses wisely between subtle splendor and artistry and the unsubtle forcefulness of an anchorman dressed in a cheap, ill-fitting suit. Being a presstitute is simple – one simply sells out their voice to the highest bidder, and it is much more difficult to be principled, to have integrity, character, and detachment. However, the message with just a singular meaning will always be uglier and less interesting than the messages with infinite meanings – to be interpreted and deciphered by each listener.
With that said, it would be a misplaced criticism to remark that I am just biased against the band. On the contrary, I have loved this band for a very long time and I still consider them to be my favorite band of all time. Alligator was with me in many moments of my life, both good and bad, and I consider it to be a perfect record. The lyrics of that record have attached themselves to my personal memories, my feelings, my self-definitions. Through speaking to others, I have come to understand that it is the same for them, but yet the interpretations, connections, and meanings that they associate with that record are entirely different for each person. For me, that was always the grandest beauty of the music of The National and I believe it was the very reason why it was seen as such a 'grower' band. It took time to understand and attach personal individual definitions to their somewhat cryptic and obscure open-ended lyrics. It was that characteristic that made their music so special, so individual, so personally meaningful to so many different people. The way that I interpreted and related to a song by the band was unique to me and hence special. For that reason, it felt like each song was written just for me, and it felt to her like it was written just for her. Each of us had our own interpretations, and therefore our own ways that the music captivated and snared us, all of them equally powerful because of that individual nature of the connection.
The music of the band was always a secondary accompaniment to the crooning of Berninger. Without the lyrics, there was nothing, and without the individual meanings, there was nothing to the lyrics. It is because “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November” means something to me and something entirely different to another that it means so much to me and is so vital in my life. It is because “you know you have a permanent piece of my medium-sized American heart” is about none of my ex-lovers, about all of them, and each of them individually all at once that it has stuck with me for so long. It’s because “I’m a perfect piece of ass” could be about Berninger, could be about me, could be about anyone listening. It could be serious, it could be sly, it could be an expression of honest pride, and could be bitingly sarcastic.
If the music of The National did not connect to me personally and did not acquire its own meaning through the connections that I made to my own life when I listened to their ambiguous lyrics, I would have never been able to assign it so much meaning. Their music got its power, meaning, and importance through my own life. It had meaning because the meaning was self-determined and self-assigned, which was only possible due to the ambiguity of their lyrics. And now on the new record, where is that now?
When we see a tombstone inscribed with the story of that person, we do not care, we cannot relate. When we see a tombstone with a joke or a message that we can apply to ourselves, we stop, think, and possibly remember it. There is endless beauty and meaning in the vague and ambiguous, and only limited, fleeting meaning in the clearly and unilaterally defined.
In general, art should be a blank slate onto which we etch our own meanings over time. It should not be something that is already full, something that we have no place to engrave our own meanings, memories, and feelings. If one cannot connect and put themselves in it, one feels detached, and discards it quickly. The art in which we ourselves become participants rather than just observers, becomes pieces of us, becomes ours in part. The artist-creator thusly becomes not a prophet, but a collaborator, someone with whom we worked to make something rather than someone who came to shove a pamphlet in our hand. The two-way connection will always be stronger.
People naturally feel animosity towards Ivory-towered individuals who claim superiority and tell us things from their lofty perch. It was the hatred of that attitude that has led to the present populist revolt. We feel kinship with those who give us the sense that we are working together to make things better. Once upon a time, The National was an everyman band but it clearly ended up choosing to side with the elites, becoming one with them, and sharing in their tactics. The elites are rightfully hated because they do not work with the people, but because they try to preach. The people are rightfully insulted and indignant that others are trying to tell them how to live their life from up above in their gilded towers, “with gold in their bathing suits.”
If one works with the people, they inevitably earn respect. The other architects commanded their men, but Roark worked with them as equals and he was rewarded with real architectural beauty and not cookie-cutter nightmarish visions of identical glass rectangles. It is in seeing the men he works with as working with him, not for him, and by treating them as fellow co-creators that he manages to capture and create beauty.
At the end of the day, how fitting is it that the worst record that The National has ever put out was the first to win a Grammy? At their most commercial, they are the most accessible that they have ever been to the mass audience and thus the most useful to the political elites. It is this fact that conclusively proves that they have lost the charm and fascination that they once held. It’s a tragedy, it’s a perhaps inevitable reality.
“You're saying things with your mouth to me that I don't recognize.”
“Could you tell the enchantment, I said goodbye? I met a girl named ‘disillusionment.’”