"Sometimes the songs describe these situations where bad decisions are made, but it's just a way to put it on the table and kick it around," says the National's lead vocalist, Matt Berninger. "I can't think of any of our songs that really solve anything."
The National's just-released fourth album, Boxer, continues the quintet's struggle with ambiguity. Berninger's lyrics detail the critical moments of people—people you know, maybe—who drift through their lives like ghosts, too distracted to commit to youth or adulthood, too expectant of a future they don't believe in. Inspired by his adopted Brooklyn home, his songs retreat into cramped apartments or cold, solitary streets, his subjects as afraid of human contact as they are afraid of losing it. His brand of hopeful realism synchs perfectly with the band's heart-wrenching drama rock—guitar-driven music that's solid and loud but buoyed by elegantly echoing horns and strings that waft like smoke.
"We used horns and strings and piano a lot in the past, but the difference with this record is we used them in a way that, you know, wasn't icing on the cake," Berninger says. "Like the horns in 'Fake Empire' [the first song and single off Boxer] are lead characters, not just something that's making the chorus sound big. It's something that turns the song in a very different direction. And that's where we find surprises, in those odd turns and juxtapositions."
The National's music is cerebral and Berninger's lyrics are poetic, but like the album's title implies, it's a rather brutal poetry, the sweet science and violent beauty of human emotion and ambivalence. This is not the fey, fuzzy-sweater rock of many a sensitive indie-rock band. And in its raw honesty, it's occasionally very funny: "I wanna hurry home to you, put on a slow, dumb show for you, and crack you up, so you can put a blue ribbon on my brain," Berninger sings in "Slow Show." "God I'm very, very frightening. I'll overdo it."
"It's cathartic in the sense that, you know, talking about these complicated or ugly or awkward moments is a way of making fun of them, or just so naked that you can't deny..." he says before trailing off. Another odd turn: The steady, authoritative, unmistakable baritone Berninger croons with, redolent of late nights and long conversations, is fraught with pauses and self-doubt when he speaks. He's even unsure of where his songs come from.
"They are personal, but they're not autobiographical," he says. "I mean, parts of them are, but—there are themes and ideas that we were kind of going through, but not the specifics of the songs. Not really diary material, but trying to reconnect with friends and trying to hold on to things that could conceptually fall apart. A lot of the record is trying to figure out how to hold on to these things, whether it's, like, specific relationships or trying to stay irresponsible when you know you really shouldn't."
So the war passes by on television, his subjects acutely aware of their obliviousness. "We'll stay inside till somebody finds us," Berninger sings on "Apartment Story." "Do whatever the TV tells us, stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz for days." "There's a lot of guilt in the songs that people are being honest about," he says. "It's a way of admitting shortcomings, but it's also really helpful and optimistic."
As personal as these songs are, they're also meant to be belted out over concussive drums and a bracing two-guitar attack. "Which makes it an odd chemistry when we perform all these new songs in front of a thousand strangers," he says. "There is an irony to it, because I don't think we've ever written a song with the idea of it being a public rock song."
The National's music, like life in general, is made natural by odd chemistry and unexpected connections. Which makes it rock and roll as communication, as communion.
"The music I've always thought of as closest to me is the stuff that you believe—you believe the songs and you believe that it's not just entertainment, not just something that's put together like a sitcom," Berninger says. "You believe it's something that's true, meaningful to the musicians, you know? And that's why you trust 'em."