It is such a common human condition to feel that we are trapped but simultaneously that we are just one small hurdle away from breaking free at long last. It is the promise of that eternal tomorrow which shall be the day that we will be able to run faster, stretch out further, and finally grasp that elusive thing that we have been perpetually pursuing. All of us are fighting against the current, all trying to escape our present confines and yet, for all of our effort, we remain stuck firmly in place. It seems like there is no escape, like every minutia of our day-to-day life is just fated to be repeated endlessly like the playlist of some superlatively, unbelievably lazy DJ. I look at all the changes that I have made, but yet somehow nothing I change changes anything. At the end of every night, it is always the same feeling waiting for me, that once again there is not any grand resolution or reward, the realization that there never was. 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 subdued ephemeral beauty that had 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 the band had ever made up until that point.
Yes, Mr. November was nominally a song about Obama, but it was also about the hope in each of us. The songs on this new album are not like this – they are blatantly and explicitly about one thing and one thing only. If Mr. November was defined by a spirit of cautiously optimistic longing for the future, then this record feels like being stuck in a beartrap. The National of yesteryear would have never said that their songs were truly to be interpreted in only a singular 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. Consequently, when I am reminded of him today, it brings forth a smile at the youthful naïveté that I had once possessed, and certainly not all this blind, pathological, deranged fury.
The earlier albums by The National had meant something unique to each listener and indeed I still have a strong fondness for those records, because each track is special in the way that it brings forth my past memories, hopes, and dreams. This new one-sided, polarizing, 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 to be as present there as it is everywhere. The only people who celebrate this seeping of politics into everything are those that traffic in clickbait, in one sense or another.
The old The National could appeal to something unique in each one of us, and in stark 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 hordes and are consequently under immense pressure to simply go along with everything that their pack is doing. Therefore, this album represents collectivism in place of the individualism expressed in their previous works. That which appeals to only one specific thing can never be superior to that which that can appeal to unique and different things in all who hear it. This modern 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 an expression that I had once read during the Kerry days goes, stars appear pretty from a distance but will burn out your eyes when viewed up close. Here, The National humanize themselves as a band and therefore reveal themselves to be as flawed as all of us who are taking part in the political charade. Their inability to remain impartial and detached from everyday struggles and concerns has killed the mystery and romanticism with which they had been associated prior. 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 all of that, the members of the band are torn off their edifice and become not monuments in which each man can see his own ideal self, but merely members of the multitudinous ranks of street preachers who just jump onto tall boxes and start screaming. This is another reflection of our sad contemporary times wherein empty talking heads gain ever increasing amounts of influence while ancient and beautiful monuments are being torn down all around.
Both the town crier perched atop a crate and a marble statue are lofted above the crowd to some extent, but while the latter has no agenda and only beauty, the former possesses only agenda and lacks beauty entirely. One is noble and above the rest, while the other is above for but an instant before someone steals away the soapbox that was borrowed to begin with and takes their spot. 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, a statue does not give voice to its opinions. When something expresses a blatant bias, it 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, one loses one's ephemeral aspect. Only those who are undefined, opaque can be ephemeral and therefore objectively beautiful. It is thus an enormous shame that The National decided to give all 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 the band.
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 must restrain itself to more muted tactics. 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, off-the-shelf Brooks Brothers suit. Being a presstitute is simple – one simply sells out their voice to the highest bidder. It is much more challenging to be principled, to remain committed to the values of integrity, character, and detachment despite and to spite it all. However, the message with just a singular meaning will always be uglier and less interesting than the messages with infinite meanings, left to be interpreted and deciphered by each member of the audience.
With that said, though one may be tempted, it would be a decidedly misplaced and inaccurate criticism to claim that I am just biased against the band. On the contrary, I have loved The National with a singular passion for a period of many years and still consider them to be my favorite band of all time. Alligator was with me throughout a multitude of defining moments of my life, both good and bad, and I consider it to be a perfect record. The lyrics of that album have attached themselves inseparably to my personal memories, feelings, self-definitions. Through speaking to others, I have come to understand that it is the same for them, but yet the connotations, connections, and meanings that the record evokes are entirely divergent for every one of us. For me, that was always the grandest beauty of the music of The National and I believe it was the very reason why it had always been regarded 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 readings of the meanings of their songs, and therefore our own ways in which the music captivated and snared us, all of them equally powerful because of that individual nature of each 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 one thing 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 all at once about none of my ex-lovers, about all of them, and each of them individually that it has stuck with me for so long. It’s because “I’m a perfect piece of ass” could somehow equally be about Berninger, about me, about anyone listening to the song. It could be serious, it could be sly, it could be an expression of honest pride, it could be bitingly sarcastic. It is not for us to know for certain.
If the music of The National did not connect to me personally and did not acquire its own meaning through the connections that it had made to my own life as I listened to their ambiguous lyrics, I would have never been able to assign it so much meaning. That is the critical thing - their music got its power, meaning, and importance through its interminglement with the river of my own life. It had meaning because the meaning was self-determined and self-assigned, which was only possible due to that ambiguity. And on the new record, where is all of that now?
When we see a tombstone inscribed with the story of the stranger to whom it belongs, we do not care as we cannot relate. When we see a tombstone with a joke or a message that we can apply to ourselves, we stop, think, and potentially remember it forever. 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 tabula rasa onto which we etch our own meanings over time. It should not be something that is already full, something that leaves no place for us to engrave our own meanings, memories, and emotions. If one cannot connect and put oneself in a piece of art, one feels detached from it, and consequently discards it quickly. Simultaneously, the art in which we ourselves become participants rather than just passive observers, becomes pieces of us, becomes ours in part. The artist-creator thusly becomes not a street prophet, but a collaborator, someone with whom we have worked to make something rather than someone who came along 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 over us and purport to 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 has clearly ended up choosing to side with the elites, becoming one with them, and sharing in their tactics. The elites are rightfully hated not because they refuse to collaborate 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, one inevitably wins respect. The other architects commanded their men, but Roark toiled with them as equals and thus he was rewarded with genuine architectural beauty in the place of cookie-cutter nightmarish visions of identical and infinite glass rectangles stretching to the horizon. It is in seeing the men that he employs 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 to the mass audience that they have ever been 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 had once held. It is a tragedy, it is perhaps an 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.’”