The National: Exposing a Need

September 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day over lunch. We talked about normal things for us: music, film, school and life. In the middle of all of this talk, however, we started talking about the role of art in faith and evangelism. While this is a topic I’ve touched on at times on this blog and will do so in the future, what stuck out to me was something my friend said. He said, “I think art’s purpose is to reveal a need,” and from there we went on to talk more in depth about that. However, I want to focus on just that statement, which verbalized something that I’ve thought about but never said in quite that way.

In this same conversation I brought up The National’s newest album, High Violet, and how adept The National is at evoking emotion not just through their music, but through occasionally obtuse and nonsensical lyrics. I think these two things are related.

If art shows us a need inside of us that we can’t ignore or sometimes even explain, I think it has done its job. I think this need is probably different inside of each of us, but it comes down to the fact that we are scarred and broken in this world looking for answers and often not finding them. Sometimes we want to give up looking for the answers but good art forces us to confront these issues time and time again; it gives us the strength to keep pressing on, because we know that someone out there is feeling the same thing as us. I think The National excels at evoking this because there is something emotional and worn about their music that is immediately identifiable.

On Alligator, their third album, the chorus of opener Secret Meeting says this, “I’m sorry I missed you/ I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain/it went the dull and wicked ordinary way.” Immediately I’m hooked, feeling the same way I do after spending hours in thought, never coming to any concrete conclusions. The National’s lyrics bring to mind images and then these mental images seem to project emotion. Alligator’s closer, Mr. November, is much the same. Lines like “I wish that I believed in fate/I wish I didn’t sleep so late/I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders” are juxtaposed with the chorus, lyrically and musically, of “I won’t f*** us over, I’m Mr. November” to create a very visceral feeling of disappointment and longing for days before failure.

This metaphorical, almost poetic language is very apparent on High Violet as well. In one of my favorites from the album, Conversation 16, the chorus goes like this, “Now we’ll leave the silver city cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams/leave the silver city to all the silver girls/everything means everything.” Using colors like silver and black place an image in the mind and invests this image with the emotions usually associated with silver and black. So, even though these lyrics are straightforward, they are charged with an extra emotional intensity due to their poetic nature and Matt Berninger’s vocal delivery.

One of the overwhelming senses I get while listening to The National is that there is something just out of reach. It feels like the words are trying to tap into something bigger, reveal something deeper. I often feel a profound sense of longing when I listen, a longing to be known in this fragmented world. There is a deep sense of alienation in many of The National’s lyrics, reflecting the way many people feel as they try to understand and live in this world. They do a great job of showing this, revealing this need.

The National is making artistic music, revealing the need for true love and intimacy, in a world where it is very difficult to be known by others. Sometimes this can be depressing, because they offer no solutions to these problems. They tell us stories of looking for meaning through drugs, sex and success that have all come up short.  But The National is here to expose the need, performing an important service by not handing us happy stories of true love around every street corner. They leave us with a question: how will you meet this need? Where will you go, what will you do to truly be known?

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