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The National's lead singer, Matt Berninger, is a baritone of the tallest order, a lurching, lanky charmer who awkwardly bumbles through live sets, yet somehow simultaneously exudes a cool, nonchalant attitude about the whole thing. Shambolic, metaphorically wart-ridden, and uncomfortably vulnerable, he's more interested in exposing weakness than projecting strength—more apt to stagger among us than tower above us.
He has done this for 10 years now, over the course of the National's five albums, the first few (starting with their self-titled 2001 debut) exploring acoustic arrangements and simple guitar hooks. Slowly, they've drifted into more grandiose orchestral-pop territory, as on this week's High Violet, their highest-profile release yet, a sharper and more immediate take on 2007's much-loved Boxer. Berninger's haunting voice is the one constant, now familiar but still inscrutable, intent on relaying some essential truth even as he's constantly obscuring it. He's sorta hard to figure out. But maybe not.
At 39, Berninger is no rookie—this is actually his second career. Most aspiring New York City rockers show up in their early 20s and immediately hit whatever stage they can find, but he arrived in 1996 as a rising star of graphic design, working for Icon Nicholson, a start-up company that designed ATM interfaces. He rose from junior designer to creative director in eight years, as the company's payroll expanded from three people to 120. "I was one of the heads of the company, flying to Stockholm for meetings with clients," he recalls in the backyard of Flatbush Farm, an organic spot in the Prospect Heights/Park Slope vortex. "And it was awesome, in a way. But the last few years were about firing friends, laying people off."
Finally, Berninger laid himself off, just prior to the tour for 2005's Alligator, the record that catapulted the quintet to a sizable audience outside New York. "I think that's part of the reason we worked so hard on this band—when we'd started, we'd done the professional thing, and did well at it," he explains. "In a way, there was a pressure off the band. We knew we could survive in a world as professional adults. I could be a grown man, I could pay my own bills. We knew we weren't going to be the Sex Pistols or the Strokes. We were never going to be these young, violent, sexy freaks that are so cool."
He'd known that for a while, actually. Born and raised in Cincinnati, Berninger describes his teen self as "really skinny with a big nose, and insecure around girls . . . But that's probably every kid's impression of themselves. What was I like? I don't know. I just know what I felt, and it was pretty dorky." Then his sister introduced him to the Smiths and Violent Femmes, freeing him to revel in his inner (and outer) dork. "I started looking at pictures of rock stars—they're some of the dorkiest. Keith Richards, Pete Townshend. Those guys aren't the quarterbacks, you know?"
He met future National bassist Scott Devendorf at the University of Cincinnati—their first band was called Nancy, with Berninger on vocals because he couldn't contribute in any other way. (He took piano lessons when he was eight: a "traumatic, horrible experience.") "I remember him being a natural leader, but without being a dick," Devendorf recalls. "He's an awkward guy, but in a funny way. Lately, he's been calling himself 'the Chevy Chase of indie rock.' He just stumbles into situations."
Watching him onstage over the years, you get that feeling. He's a bumbler, a stage drifter, sometimes lost, sometimes not. "I'm just shy of total failure," he deadpans about his live shows. "There's something awkward about what we're doing. Not by design, but it has an unpolished and borderline foolish and embarrassed exposure. Maybe that's what people relate to a little bit."
All this makes him stand out from his NYC nominal-rock-star peers. Julian Casablancas: too cool, too aloof. James Murphy: too jaded, too arch. The Grizzly Bear dudes: too soft, too gentle. Dave Longstreth: too cerebral, too academic. Karen O: too shrieky, too stylish. The Hold Steady's Craig Finn: too duuuude, too well read. Anyone in Interpol: too polished, too poised. Berninger flirts with all those qualities, but doesn't overplay any of them: a near-perfect mix of the personalities that surround us every day. The guy in your apartment building obsessed with his new new-media job. The trivia hound at the bar who's so sure Hanna-Barbera cartoons are art. The guy in film school who used to be a jock who made fun of film schools. The guy you slept with last night who hasn't called. The guy who wants you back. The guy who looks depressed and lonely as he reads novels you think you've heard of on the 2 train. The guy who says he loves you and means it; the guy who says he loves you and might not. The guy who hates himself but loves his biker rights. The guy who feels so alienated in a big city, finds the bright lights blinding and the noise deafening, but will never leave because he's too afraid to live anywhere else.
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?