I hate that goddamn band. For about five years those words have popped to mind or spit out of my lips whenever someone mentions the National, the Brooklyn-based rock group whose sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, came out last week.
It dates to the first time I heard “Fake Empire,” the breakout single from 2007’s Boxer, which led to 2010’s half-million-selling, critically beloved album, High Violet.* As far as tens of thousands of fans are concerned, this cerebral, downbeat but expansive, musically adept ensemble’s new record makes its entrance on a red carpet strewn with rose petals.
But I hate that goddamn band. If someone doesn’t stop me I’ll go on to call them portentous, monotonous, self-conscious, and deficient in character and eccentricity. In an admiring Under the Radar review of the new album, Ryan E.C. Hamm wrote, “Overall, Trouble Will Find Me is another accomplished entry for a band that doesn't seem to know how to do anything else.” To which I’d reply: exactly.
The National makes me feel that rock music, like much of American literature and visual art before it, has died and gone to graduate school. The band delivers certifiable Quality-with-a-capital-Q, a perfect product of the English and music departments—the way that Lady Gaga is a perfect product of the semiotics department and an MBA program, though I definitely prefer Lady Gaga. At my most extreme, I’d even claim that the National reflects the way social and economic stratification are narrowing the space for cultural free agency and rewarding artists who straightforwardly serve either the libido of the mass market or the neurotic narcissism of the privileged classes.
I know that’s an unfair load to pile on a fine band that many people enjoy. It’s also probably a rationalization for a more gut-level dislike. Which catches me in an ideological contradiction.
In recent years, most people, and critics in particular, have become more live-and-let-live about one another’s varying musical tastes. Teen-pop, dance music, metal, and even Phil Collins, to name a few frequent targets of scorn, are all accorded their place. Dump on Kanye or Ke$ha or Justin Bieber and watch how quickly we critics will come back at you. This may represent a swing of the pendulum back to pop writing’s roots in questioning the divide between high art and supposed trash. Or it may be because of MP3s and YouTube exposing us all to more material, or something more socially complex.
Whatever the cause, I have been a cheerleader for this shift to “poptimism.” I’ve even written a whole book about why it matters not to be contemptuous of, say, Celine Dion. So I’m well aware that if you engage with almost any segment of culture that other people hold dear you’ll find meaning and value there.
That’s what the National’s very reasonable fans say to me when I sneer—“Yeah, I know a lot of people think they’re dull, but if you really listen you’ll hear how much is going on …” The version that gave me most pause came from Owen Pallett, the brilliant solo performer (formerly under the sobriquet Final Fantasy) and close collaborator with Arcade Fire, the Mountain Goats, Grizzly Bear, Beirut, and others. In a Facebook thread where a few of us were disparaging the band, he piped in: “The National is the ultimate ‘They suck! except for that one song’ band, and that song is different for everyone. I’m pretty sure I could put together a mix tape of National songs that would convince any hater.”
My first impulse was to ask him to send me that mix tape. My second was to say, “Shut up! I hate that goddamn band!” I went with the latter.
In the end, it simply seems too repressive and stultifying to demand that we give up entirely on the fundamental pop pleasure of taking a side. Too often that instinct has manifested itself in discarding important genres, or valid modes such as sentimental or aggressive music, and especially in masking a social prejudice as an aesthetic one—hating artist x as a stand-in for hating “the kind of people who listen to x.” In this case, though, I’m the kind of person who listens to the National—adult, white, middle-class, liberal-artsy. If the competition is merely intramural, merely Beatles-versus-Stones, I get to choose my colors.
Owen was right: If I repeatedly listened to the Best of the National I would grow to appreciate the ways the rhythmic and melodic sides of the band circle each other like bull and matador to produce a dramatic tension, or the dialectic between pained sincerity and sardonic self-deprecation in singer Matt Berninger’s crafty lyrics. Going back and playing the past few albums I felt it happening: I noticed how deeply Berninger has absorbed Leonard Cohen, for instance, in the way that he flips from grand symbolism to mundane detail and confessions of ineptitude. Which is, as a rule, like crack to me.