Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet, but when Hype Machine declares an MP3 “dead” after 72 hours on the interweb and whole PR campaigns are planned around getting on that wretched BBC Sound Of 2011 list, it’s hard to find trace of anyone planning for bands with a shelf life longer than Altered Zones’ attention span.
It’s a disheartening thought, especially when you think about the slow-burning acts that might have missed their chance had they come to the fore now – take The National. They’ve been going for over eleven years, but it’s only this year, with their fifth album, that they’ve truly started getting the kind of praise they deserve.
They’re presently in the middle of a sold-out UK jaunt that calls in Manchester tomorrow, Glasgow on Saturday and culminates in three sold-out nights at Brixton early next week.
Sometimes they’re plagued by unfair preconceptions – that they’re a bunch of miserable bastards, and – the one I have to weather most often in the office – is that they make boring old man music. (I am neither old, nor a man – take that, colleagues!)
It’s all nonsense – The National are one of the greatest bands of their generation, a band to whom trends dictate nothing. They’re on the cusp of making their ‘Automatic For The People’, and everyone’s starting to pay heed.
The National are a gloriously understated band. Not necessarily in terms of music – they know the heart-bursting effect of a stately flank of horns well – but in terms of their subject matter. At the start of their career, they still had day jobs, working in graphic design in the heady aftermath of the dot.com boom, and naturally, that fed into their songs.
On their Beggars Banquet debut, ‘Alligator’ (their third album), Matt Berninger’s lyrics capture the social anxiety of the workplace perfectly on ‘Baby We’ll Be Fine’: “All night I lay on my pillow and pray / For my boss to stop me in the hallway / Lay my head on his shoulder and say / Son, I’ve been hearing good things.” Who hasn’t ever felt like that?
And now they’re older, professional musicians, some with wives and kids, they’re not trying to falsely maintain those blue-collar woes; adult responsibilities form the basis of their songs now. On paper, yep, that sounds incredibly dull, but they do it with the elegance of a Jonathan Franzen or Richard Yates novel, with the subtlety and tone of an episode of Mad Men.
Take ‘Afraid Of Everyone’, where Berninger laments, “I don’t have the drugs to work it out,” the secret medicine to protect “my kid on my shoulders” from the malign predators of day-to-day life. Or the eloquent ennui of ‘Conversation 16’, where he sings “We live on coffee and flowers / Try not to wonder what the weather will be / I figured out what we’re missing / I tell you miserable things after you are asleep.”
Back to the “old man music” accusation – it’s a pertinent question as to why anyone under the age of 30 would want to listen to melancholy tales of upwardly mobile big city dwellers’ lives. But they answer that on ‘Boxer’, their fourth record, with a song called ‘Mistaken For Strangers’, where Matt sings of “another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults.”
Isn’t that what everyone starts doing from about the age of 18 onwards? Obvious answers start to elude you, guidance becomes less obvious, and life gets increasingly complicated – in terms of relationships, jobs, or moving cities.
I don’t think The National necessarily provide answers to these troubles, but there’s a sense of utterly normal empathy and anxiety in their songs that makes you feel that it’s all ok – that even these successful chaps in their 30s are still wracked with the same mild anxieties as you.
Maybe for some people that’s not a comforting thought – rather, utterly depressing, knowing that the niggles are never going to shake. But it’s one of the reasons I love them. Not only are they a comfort, but Berninger’s weighty eloquence is oblique enough for it to mean whatever you want it to.
Take this line, from ‘You’ve Done It Again, Virginia’ – “You can’t talk to people right / You can’t tell a story / You’re tall, long-legged and your heart’s full of liquor / And me and everybody else is just ice in a glass.” I don’t know quite what that means, but it’s stunning.
They’re the perfect band for anyone making a jittered foray into adulthood and feeling like an imposter because your head and heart aren’t as full with answers and ability as you think they should be by now. The band are known fans of a glass of wine or three – join me in raising a glass to them and their trend-defying victory.