It’s surprisingly easy to caricature modern music. Looking past the too-obvious examples like ‘chillwave’ or ‘shitgaze’, one still finds a culture of image and niche that limits artists. Radiohead will always be the Dead for computer kids. Neutral Milk Hotel is the classic example of the tender, fragile singer. The Strokes are nothing but New York cool, and Arcade Fire are the audacious and theatrical geniuses. Despite how great these bands are, they must fulfill that picture or risk alienating their fans.
One band, however, is different: the National. There simply isn’t a pithy phrase that can capture what the National do on their records. They’re a band of a different sort. And it’s for that very reason that they’re the greatest band in America.
True to their Midwestern roots, the band seems relatively average. Their sound is hard to describe succinctly – not for novelty but because it sounds so familiar. They even look nondescript. Business casual, scruff, slightly messy hair, they’re every middle-aged man you’ve passed on the street without notice. They’re the middle-class and every empty blanket statement made about ‘America’ by desperate politicians – ”Oh, we’re so disarming, darling”, singer Matt Berninger coos on “Apartment Story”.
And he’s right: the familiarity is merely the Trojan Horse for a staggering brilliance. The ostensible averageness contains stunning musical landscapes coupled with unmatched lyricism, capturing the state of both the music industry and culture as a whole. “We’re the heirs to the glimmering world,” they state on 2005’s Alligator. The critical acclaim they’ve garnered is proof enough.
And the lack of image is key. Because they’re not that band or this kind of person, they touch on universalities, reaching the suburbs in a way Arcade Fire could only dream of. They aren’t just singing about contemporary life, but they’re taking part in it in the same way their audience is. The National are genuine.
“It’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me”, Berninger sings, summing up the Iraq War and its detractions with a precision lost in the heavy-handed criticisms of lesser bands. Few understand the subtle mental state surrounding current American political battles well enough to capture them in twelve words – but then again, few are free of the modern marketing approach to culture.
The National, however, are well aware of that approach – and that it’s lacking: “Showered and blue-blazered, fill yourself with quarters/You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends”, they lament on Boxer. Today is “nothing like it was in my room, in my best clothes” back when our images of ourselves were powerful. Now, “there’s no leaving New York” and our culture – especially our music – is dictated by a series of manufactured stereotypes and genres that bear little relation to the content of the average American life. The band knows both the futility in being something they’re not and the tendency to do so anyway.
Who besides the National could cut through industry ways to display the banal terror of America in a recession? Imagine the White Stripes performing “Baby We’ll Be Fine”:
All night I lay on my pillow and pray
for my boss to stop me in the hallway
lay his head on my shoulder and say,
”Son, I’ve been hearing good things”
It would be unthinkable – it’s too far away from Jack White’s world and too close to ours. Maybe Springsteen could have done it in the late 70s, but it’s a sentiment that seems absolutely foreign to the very existence of most American bands.
But even more striking is that the National capture the intricate posturing involved in an average life. “I’m a professional in my beloved white shirt,” Berninger muses ironically before concluding, three years later, that he doesn’t “have the drugs to sort it out”. As a part of an industry that thrives on the worst social stereotyping, the National have developed a profound understanding of the simple lies we all tell ourselves in the mirror before work. And with a deft stroke and perhaps the greatest lyric of the decade, they twist the knife in all of us, spotlighting us as we “ballerina on the coffee table cock in hand.”
These are lyrics that would be utterly disingenuous from any other band. They’re also lyrics that, on a first pass, seem like a line you might have jotted down on a napkin at breakfast. They lack pretension. And yet they are poetry of the greatest kind, disclosing the unexpressed emotional character of a nation.
“No, I wouldn’t go out alone into America,” Berninger sings on “Karen”. Too many bands have taken that advice literally, surrounding themselves with cliques of genre-groupies as blogs push whatever new trends started in a Brooklyn warehouse last night. But the National aren’t cool enough for that. They know it’s not something that makes sense: “Karen, I’m not taking sides, I don’t think I’ll ever do that again/I’ll end up winning and I won’t know why.”
Instead, they take a simple approach. They don’t put on a show, they don’t have an image. They’re just a band like the one you started in high school. And for that reason and no other, they’re so much more powerful than just a band. They strike right at a “permanent piece/of my medium-sized American heart”.