It’s been difficult to know all week whether I’ve been depressed or just perpetually hungover. Which seems like the perfect emotional backdrop for a new album release from The National.
The National are my ultimate “do I accidentally take too many pills/just listen to some music” kind of band. My darkest times of the past decade have, weirdly, coincided with them releasing a new album. And let’s face it — The National, for all their humour and wit and lyricism and musicianship, are miserable motherfuckers. Well, Matt Berninger (the singer) is, and he’s the face and the voice of the band. It’s his mood that sets the tone. They don’t call him the Dark Lord for nothing.
Anyway, back to my darkest times (because the more blogs I read the more I realise this format is primarily for chronically “would-be” writers who feel the need to talk publicly about their misery).
The soundtrack to one of the most tumultuous times of my life was The National’s album Boxer. I got the job at Laidlaw College at the back end of 2007 (I say THE job, but it was actually A job. I didn’t get the job I interviewed for but I was given another one that I didn’t want, because apparently my presentation was shit hot — though at the time not even they knew which job I would land with). Even so, I wasn’t due to join the college until the middle of 2008, by which time the GFC had ravaged the world’s financial markets, including in New Zealand, which doesn’t really have a market (which is why it remained relatively untouched by the financial collapse, apart from the fact every employer used the GFC as an excuse to lockdown wage rises for the next fucking 10 years). Six months is a long time to wait to take up an appointment at a conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical Bible College in Henderson, West Auckland, when you’re earning a lot more money teaching journalism at a progressive research university in Perth, Western Australia. What I’m saying is that in that time I googled a lot about Laidlaw and West Auckland to find out what I was moving to, and … well, I had second thoughts. On top of everything I found on Google, I realised that the HR policies at the college were more right wing than Australian mining giants Robe River. Seriously. There were some members of faculty who would have been made redundant three times! The college was also closing all the regional counselling schools across New Zealand in order to centralise everything in Auckland (and save money). By this stage I had been appointed the Head of Counselling, so from my cushy job in Western Australia I was watching on as the college leadership dismantled my role. But I had a friend on the inside, and it was she who kept my eyes on the prize. For sure, the “prize” turned out to be the equivalent of a party bag from the $2 shop, but nevertheless, despite the emotional ups and downs, I stayed the course. But at the end of every day during that six months of waiting, I would get on the train at Murdoch, south of Perth, and would put on Boxer as I travelled home.
I found a dialogue partner in that album. Its defiance, its desire, its insecurity, its fragility, its longing, its romance, its self-consciousness — about its brilliance as well as its failings … I resonated with it all. It remains one of those albums I both love and loathe to listen to.
Subsequent albums were similarly well-placed to provide tunes to the challenging circumstances of my New Zealand life. High Violet was the soundtrack to my college break-up, which resulted in months of sleepless, restless, agonisingly anxious nights. It’s not for nothing that the track Sorrow was my morning iPhone alarm tune. Or that I would listen to England on repeat, and longingly dream of going back home so that I could start again.
Their next album, Trouble Will Find Me, was the backdrop of some equally difficult nights, and days, as the magazine I never wanted to publish stripped me of every last dollar (and everybody else’s) and every last bit of self-respect. Meanwhile, Carolyn had (and fucking defeated) breast cancer. My new morning iPhone alarm tune was the track Heavenfaced:
I could walk out, but I won’t / In my mind I am in your arms / I wish someone would take my place / Can’t face heaven all heavenfaced / No one’s careful all the time / If you lose me, I’m gonna die
Yep. That just about sums up that entire period. Financial and relational ruin. However, that album also provided moments of light relief, with some of my favourite Matt Berninger lyrics on the song Pink Rabbits:
It wasn’t like a rain it was more like a sea / I didn’t ask for this pain it just came over me / I love a storm, but I don’t love lightning / All the waters coming up so fast, it’s frightening / Am I the one you think about when you’re / Sitting in your faintin’ chair drinking pink rabbits?
And so to this, the release of their latest album, I Am Easy To Find. While I wouldn’t say it’s one of my darkest times, it certainly has had its challenges. Perhaps the worst I can say for myself is that the theological and epistemological frameworks I’ve built up over 10 or so years have taken a beating. But if that’s the worst? I mean, what sort of wanker talks like that, anyway?
“Waaah, my theology’s in tatters!!”
Grow up, you fucking bell end.
The last track on Trouble Will Find You was Hard To Find. So this album, I Am Easy To Find, is a redefining of The National in some ways — one that I suspect will be a game changer for popular music more broadly. As a National album it’s also typical in all the right ways — lyrical, beat-driven, lush instrumentation, mature, sophisticated production. The difference is how the band, and the album, have elevated a range of their favourite female singers, slap bang in the middle of the #MeToo era, in which men globally are being challenged not only to not be abusive to women, but also to act affirmatively to reframe patriarchal structures that have silenced or sidelined women. And so the band on this use their lofty position to give their friends (superb musicians, all of them) a hoick up. That sounds cynical, but it isn’t meant to be. Because the impact is superb — there’s nothing token about the album. It simply works.
Singers such as Gail Ann Dorsey, Sharon Van Etten and Lisa Hannigan not only share the stage with Berninger — in an adult contemporary pop version of male-female encounter — they sometimes take the mic completely and reduce Berninger to a growling backing vocalist. Brilliant. I never once feel that a song has suffered because he has taken the seat at the back.
I was worried about the album when I first heard it was taking this approach, and also when the first teaser tracks were released. But the result is stunning. Refreshing and provocative, it makes a loud statement by taking a subtle route, and produces something of true beauty that you think should have made sense long before The National decided to do it.
There are few dead spots on this album, if any. It lacks the punch of earlier albums — apart from tracks like The Pull of You and Where Is Her Head — but that’s intentional. The album brews rather than pops. But lyrically … wow, the best thing they have done, thanks to the magical pairing of Berninger and his wife, Carin Besser (with the addition of producer Mike Mills). The standout for me at this early stage (I only bought the record today, FFS) is Not In Kansas:
You even get to wear a dress / And feed his flesh to wayward daughters / Everyone is so impressed / Teachers, neighbors, and mothers, fathers / First Testament was really great / The sequel was incredible / Like the Godfathers or the first two Strokes / Every document’s indelible / Infidels and Heartbreak Beats / Smidges of bad ecstasy / I must have left it in my pocket / With my Christianity in my rocket / I’m binging hard on Annette Bening / I’m listening to R.E.M. again / Begin The Begin, over and over / Begin The Begin, over and over
My worry now is that The National typically release an album a full year or two before a crisis in my life that really warrants it. Which means there may be tough times ahead. In this moment, however, the album coincides with a period of doubt and decision, revision and redirection. It’s a creative time for me, but a tumultuous one, and one in which the theological and philosophical ideas that I had relied upon, and then started to suspect were flawed, are now totally out the window. In many ways I really am back at the beginning. But that’s okay too. A lot of people are back there as well. As Berninger says in the album’s title track:
How long have we been here? / Am I ever coming down? / I need to find some lower thinking, if I’m going to stick around / I’m not going anywhere / Who do I think I’m kidding? / I’m still standing in the same place / Where you left me standing