The National released Trouble Will Find Me before the summer began. After one listen, there was only one song that I really liked, “This Is the Last Time.” Being a huge fan of their previous two albums, I knew to restart the album and play it again. And again. And again. That is how the National works on me. I swallow one or two songs initially and then the album begins to infiltrate my system with its meticulous percussion, minimalistic melody, and background oohs and ahhs. The combination of low voice, steady rhythms, and seamlessly layered keys, guitars, background vocals, horns, and strings gives the band a patient if sometimes brooding sound—like sitting in a rocking chair on your porch on the last Sunday evening before the looming grey clouds finally crack open to release the furious waters of heaven and hell while you continue to rock slowly back and forth, unfazed, because you’ve been through worse.
The National’s music recognizes the monotony of time and uses it as the setting for Matt Berninger’s confessional and often cryptic lyrics. But sometimes their songs—as in “This Is the Last Time,” whose lyrics speak of strained love or perhaps a numbed love—are interrupted by a completely different melody and lyric. “Your love is such a swamp,” Berninger sings over the repetitive guitar and bass lick that opens the song and the drum beat that kicks in at the second verse, providing a sense of stability and purpose. Berninger has risen to the call of the song’s “you,” in her moment of need. “This is the last time,” he says perhaps unconvincingly. After a third verse, Berninger picks up the cry of “I won’t be vacant anymore / I won’t be waitin anymore,” ending his dwelling on his lover’s swampy love to examine his own part in it and find the determination to change. Then the drums fall out, leaving the strings, bass guitar, and the strumming acoustic guitar in a swamp of their own. We’ve moved into the speaker’s head. “Jenny I am in trouble / I can’t get these thoughts out of me / Jenny I’m seeing double / I know this changes everything.” While he continues these lines, a woman’s voice slowly fades into focus, “It takes a lot of pain in the cup / It takes a lot of pain to pick me up.” Although the song is very ambiguous, one gets the feeling that the singer has finally realized that he is losing something and that he, like his lover, needs help in finding it.
A similar moment occurs in “Slow Show” from the album Boxer, released in 2007. Berninger is at some sort of get together or party and isn’t able to get out of his own head: “Standin at the punch table, swallowing punch / can’t pay attention to the sound of anyone.” The second verse continues his scattered stream of consciousness narration: “My leg is sparkles, my leg is pins / I better get my shit together, better gather my shit in / You could drive a car through my head in five minutes / from one side of it to the other.” He clearly does not do well at parties. But between and after these verses, the singer has moments of focus where his thoughts travel to his wife: “I want to hurry home to you, put on a slow dumb show for you, crack you up.” Alienated from himself and his surroundings, he desires the company of his loved one. After a couple of minutes in this back and forth between the scattered present and the longings for the stability of love, the drums shift to a low, contemplative thumping—that’s the only way I can describe it—providing the space for one of the Berninger’s most intimate lyrics. A piano begins playing a characteristically minimal and repetitive lick and he sings, “You know I dreamed about you / for twenty-nine years before I saw you / You know I dreamed about you / I missed you for twenty-nine years.” The song ends with the piano lick unaccompanied.
The National’s music is brilliant because it shows how, from the seas of normality and anxiety, clarity emerges to help us understand ourselves (like the frank “Jenny I am in trouble…”) and to reveal those things that pull us through times of alienation and chaos. In these two songs the moments of clarity are ushered in by a noticeable change of texture, but in other songs they are found in the slide of the guitar (“Graceless”), a more melodic chorus after verses of monotone musings (“I Should Live in Salt”), or an unusually unadorned drumbeat (“Santa Clara”). Enjoy and savour the variations, slight though they may be.
This summer, as I wrote in archipelagos and icons, was saturated by many great opportunities that, because I did not leave enough time for stillness, became a mass of obligations that choked me. I gave way to anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. My sister came to visit in the last week or two before I left for Oxford, giving me a much needed boost of spirit. But the first night of her visit, through absolutely no fault of hers, became the climax of my summer’s anxiety.
I was reading Paula Huston’s A Land Without Sin in bed before going to sleep. Not having a handy outlet or lamp that would reach my bunk, I lit a candle for light, setting it on a shard of my favorite mug, which broke freshman year. I set the shard with candle on my mattress. When I felt about ready to drift off, I carefully dropped my book to the floor and reached to set my alarm clock. The next thing I recall is waking up to the sound of a fire alarm. Smoke filled my lungs. Looking around, bleary-eyed at first, I saw the smoke pouring across the ceiling, stemming from a fire on my mattress, next to my head. The fire was a foot in diameter and perhaps a foot and a half tall. Yelling horrible words, I grabbed my pillow and attacked the fire with it. When the pillow caught fire also, its partially melted polyester stuffing went flying across the room, sticking to the walls and ceiling. I beat the fire out with the carcass of my pillow.
I got up and looked around my room, unable to recognize it. I called campus security, my desire to hear the voice of another human overpowering my instinct to try to cover up my error and carry on, saving myself the embarrassment of bearing the consequence of a broken rule: no candles. The candle for me was not only a source of light, but a source of peace and a reminder of God’s presence. But a candle has dangerous potential, which I, by inadvertently passing out after a long day, released.
The cleaning man came at 2:00 am to help clean and to remind me that I was lucky to be alive. The Seattle Fire Department came to make sure the fire was out. It was, but the room remembered it by the scorched hole it left in the mattress and the ash spread thick on the ceiling. A campus residential director (whom I consider a friend and someone whom I respect) came to make sure that things were being taken care of, including me. She found ointment and bandaids for the two fingers on my left hand that had minor burns. She returned twenty minutes later to find me hyperventilating on the kitchen floor. She made me some tea and talked with me until I had calmed down and then helped convert a couch into a bed so I would have a place to sleep. I didn’t get any sleep that night. I didn’t go to work the next day. But I did see my sister, and that was a blessing.
For a while afterwards, before falling asleep at night I could feel the burning tingle of the flames in my fingers. I still flinch at the smell of toast burning or a brief encounter with heat, even if I know it is contained. People have endured so much worse than my stupid mattress fire, but it was the scariest thing I can remember happening to me.
It is written that our God is a consuming fire. My fire told me that the wrong things were consuming me.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, from ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’