Feats of Strength: The National

The National released one of the best albums of 2013 with Trouble Will Find Me.  This is no surprise, considering the excellent run that the band has been on–this is now four straight classic albums for the band.  AlligatorBoxerHigh Violet, and now Trouble mark one of the greatest winning streaks in music history, and depending on the day you ask me, I’d rank any one of those as the band’s best work.  And just like their albums, it’s hard to elevate any member’s contributions over the other.  Everyone works together to make a cohesive sound, from the rich textures of the Dessners to the complex rhythms of the Devendorfs to the deep, expressive voice of Matt Berninger.

One of the great things about The National is the subtleties that reveal themselves over multiple listens.  On the initial lesson, you get a general feeling that sure, this is pleasant, with only slight variations in tempo signifying the difference between the bittersweet quick numbers from the melancholic slower numbers.  But with each successive listen, you get a better idea of the layers within each song, from different textures between instruments you didn’t pick up on the first time to certain dynamic swells that escaped notice the first time around.  Most impressively, The National prove that intensity doesn’t have to mean “loud” and “abrasive”.

And then when you get an appreciate all the different layers of their songs, you begin picking up on the lyrics, and find a ton of memorable lines.  The song “Pink Rabbits” is no exception, and there are several lines that stand out, ranging from the clever (“Now I only think about Los Angeles when the sound kicks out”) to the beautifully depressing (“You didn’t see me I was falling apart; I was a television version of a person with a broken heart”).  It’s not just the individual lines of the song that are noteworthy, but the way that they are structured as well.

Again, this is a detail that becomes apparent after multiple listens, but there are several songs that The National have written that don’t employ traditional verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structures.  There is the illusion of different choruses, but this is based more on melody and dynamics than a traditional structure.  For the most part, “Pink Rabbits” relies on the same four chords, but different sections have the effect of a chorus because of either a build-up (two-chord sections, marked by the lyrics “And everybody was gone, you were staring down the street cause you were trying not to crack up) or by a quick simple repetition.

The effect of this is we get linear progress as we proceed through this particular story of heartbreak, with momentary glances back at the past.  This is effectively complemented by the music which has a dragging rhythm as if the band is trying, but can only manage to trudge along.  This reinforces the narrative of a person confronting all the emotions that come with seeing an old love once again, though circumstances have changed.  The narrator is uncomfortable dragging up old feelings (“I’m so surprised you want to dance with me now, I was just getting used to living life without you around”) and feels bitter about encountering them once again (“You said it would be painless–it wasn’t that at all”).

There is a particular section where the particular melody line that Berninger matches up perfectly with the narrative.  When he sings the section that begins “I was solid gold, I was in the fight”, the melody lifts up and is ascending.  However, when the narrator meets the old love, the melody line begins to descend as he sings “I’m so surprised you want to dance with me now.”  From this moment on, the mood has permanently shifted, and the emotions come bubbling up to the surface.

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