First Two Pages Of Frankenstein (4AD/Remote Control)
THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH NARROW APPEAL you know. There’s no reason why anything should be expected to speak to everyone, everywhere, all at once.
One of my students last week, as I was playing tracks from The National album while people were filing into class, commented that he’d been told the new record, the band’s ninth, was nothing new and fairly boring, though he’d not heard it himself and was planning on avoiding it. The student next to him, another early twentysomething who said she knew nothing of this band, asked what are they like, to which I responded: middle-aged men making sad music about what it is like to be middle-aged men and women.
Not surprisingly, she seemed no more interested in hearing this record after these explanations. If eye rolls could talk …
And, that’s fair enough. A collection of songs about taking stock and asking long delayed questions (“What am I doing watching clocks?/Space is too empty, this room’s too hot/What am I doing wandering the halls?/Ringing doorbells, pounding walls”), where making reparations and recovery rather than running away is the choice (“Don’t make this any harder/Everybody is waiting/Walk-on’s almost over/Teenagers on ice”), whose ambient setting is dimming and day-sceptical (“We can dial down the daylight a little/I think the candy blue sky’s messing with our brains”), whose reference points sometimes feel like half dark, half bone-dry self-mocking snapshots (“You in my New Order t-shirt/Holding a cat and a glass of beer”), and where frankness about personal darkness is a given (“Don’t you understand?/Your mind is not your friend again/It takes you by the hand/And leaves you nowhere”) is probably at the very least asking for an agreed-upon base as a condition for listening.
But wait a decade or two, a relationship or two, a career success and failure or two – while, yes, developing a taste for slow, closed-room atmosphere, always rhythmically engrossing, yet still mood-over-tempo songs, sung by someone who sounds internally craggy and externally worn – and man, I reckon this might just feel like home.
(And look, if you still want a kind of pop grandeur achieved by accretion and inexorable shifting patterns of drummer Bryan Devendorff, a climax of sighs that is both exultant and collapsed on itself, in other words the sort of thing that became The National’s signature, you can still find it here in a song like Grease In Your Hair.)
The direction, the tone, is set from an opening song which while ostensibly about the hesitation of a singer waiting to walk on stage, is really about that time between realisation and reaction in so many aspects of our lives. Matt Berninger (lightly shadowed by Sufjan Stevens) keeps coming back to this one phrase, “What was the worried thing you said to me?”, the line’s meaning morphing with each repetition just as the song will be distorted into a particularly personal shape by everyone hearing it.
This song, Once Upon A Poolside, is rhythmically frictionless around the measured piano, Stevens’ faint echo eventually replaced by a slow rising tide of backing voices, and the merest suggestion of low-profile strings. It feels graceful but never light because while the burdens may be emotional, they weigh. Everything weighs eventually.
But not beyond capacity. Sad men and women there may be throughout, but not hopeless ones. Not all endings are final, not all conclusions are fatal collapses. Even the back-and-forth of The Alcott, a duet between Berninger and Taylor Swift that plays as both anticipated reconciliation and merely delayed separation, contains within its early subliminal drums (that only step firmly in the final minute), the rise and fall and rise and fall of the two voices, and the faint shape of a synthesiser in the background of the piano, a gathering instead of grimness.
You can feel that in the way the almost Bacharach-in-a-skivvy rhythm of Eucalyptus is slowly subsumed within a growing forest of guitars, emerging from the trees firmer, faster but yet ladened. Or how the low patter of drums in Ice Machineskeep circling the centre, steadfast while the borders have intersections of piano and strings and guitar and space.
And it’s definitely there in the album’s closing track, Send For Me, which at first appears to be merely keeping time but like its central lyrical offer from a discarded lover (“If you’re ever in a gift shop dying inside/Filling up with tears/Cause you thought of somebody you loved/You haven’t seen in years … Send for me whenever, wherever/Sent for me, I’ll come and get you”) that timekeeping becomes a quiet certainty of something enduring.
Middle age moments? Yeah, and what of it?