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Berninger's lyrics evoke these sentiments abstractedly: scraps and asides and fragments that sometimes draw from real things and real conversations, woven together in a way that feels obtuse and glum, but that he insists is "emotional, exciting, fun." He says that High Violet is a "fun record," his morose baritone notwithstanding. (On "Lemonworld," he talks about inventing a "summer-lovin' torture party"—if you're taking that too seriously, that's a whole set of other issues outside his control.) "People don't know what I'm talking about when I say that, but it is fun, to dig into these ugly, dark sides of relationships, or your own obsessions and fears. Putting together these abstract collages that feel really funny, or cathartic, or just a way of spilling your guts about something that's hard to talk about."
Abstract repetition is one of his major weapons: Even if you don't know what Squalor Victoria is, after moaning it a dozen or so times, it sounds like he does. Other times, it's not even abstract. On "Slow Show," from Boxer, he leads with "Standing at the punch table, swallowing punch"—writers always get chastised for this stuff, but Berninger adores it. On High Violet, there's a song called "Anyone's Ghost," wherein he admits, "Didn't want to be your ghost/Didn't want to be anyone's ghost." Many words rhyme with ghost: boast, most, post, host, roast, toast. But they won't do. "Ghost" it is. Or take the moment on "Runaway," the new record's pinnacle, an epic tear-jerker as far as National songs go, in which he declares bluntly, like a man finally ready to grow up, "I won't be no runaway/'Cause I won't run."
"That's one of the best lines on the record," the singer insists. "It's much better to say that rather than 'I'll be around because I love you so much.' It's a hypnotic way of saying something, over and over again. You see people who are quote-unquote crazy, where they're repeating themselves. But there's something comfortable about that, when that happens in songs. You see it in prayer a lot, in spiritual things, where they repeat things over and over again. The idea is, if you say something enough times, it'll come true. Make something reality. You see that in all kinds of spoken tradition and storytelling. And songs are kinda like that."
"Matt's a surprising lyricist . . . he surprises us," says National guitarist Bryce Dessner. "We know when he's written something good, but sometimes it takes us a little while to get used to. When I first heard [High Violet's] "Conversation 16," where he says, 'I was afraid I'd eat your brains,' I was like, 'Whoa.' But now it's my favorite moment of the record."
To that end—the brain-eating end—the National's songs aren't all gloom and doom. "The underappreciated factor is the really ridiculous, melodramatic lyrics, where they're supposed to be funny," Devendorf confirms. "No one's ultra-depressed. We're not on any anti-psychotic medication."
Berninger agrees. "I think there's a lot more humor in the songs that gets overlooked. But I guess that's my fault: I guess I'm not as funny as I thought. But there are lines like, 'I tell you miserable things after you're asleep'—I think they're hilarious, but I sing them really sincerely. Which makes them funnier. The best humor is a little uncomfortable, and there's a lot of that in our music. At least I think I do that. Sometimes it's misheard. If you bounce that goofy, reckless, ugly stuff off a really heartfelt, sincere line, the energy between those moments . . . that's where the comedy is."
It's this dichotomy that helps Berninger define what it's like for millions of transplanted New Yorkers—outsiders at heart, with complex emotions but maybe not quite as melodramatic as they look, bumbling their way through concrete days. "When I lived in Ohio, I learned about New York by watching Woody Allen movies," Berninger says. "I had this fantastical vision of what New York was. This romantic abstraction. I still feel like that, living here. I always feel like I'm on some set of some awesome movie." Don't we all?