Indie Rock Case Study 1: The National
My readers should, by now, be accustomed to this tiger being a tad curmudgeonly about indie rock. I’ve gone after the nebulous category before in my attempted indictment against Arcade Fire. Though I brought my charges of musical irrelevance and complacency before a grand jury, my legal case was going nowhere fast; Montréal’s elite cabal of indie sympathizers made mincemeat of my case. Had it been literal mincemeat, I would have had things to lick other than my own wounds, but alas. A writer can only deal with reality, whether tiger or human. Though the grand jury aroused my predatory instincts, it would have prevented me from turning my critical ire toward a target like The National.
Believe me when I say that The National is, even more than Arcade Fire, a deserving target for scorn. Even if we’ve sunk into a period of fallow traditionalism in rock music, we should not use this as an excuse to lower our collective standards. Sadly, The National, a band utterly bankrupt of imagination, a band that churns out rote songs that lack even Arcade Fire’s bombastic panache, has arrived. In more ways than one. Not only has the band achieved some commercial success, but they are bringing their sad-faced dog and pony show to the local college. Therefore, while I am usually able to ignore it, The National will be a popular conversation topic in my locale for the foreseeable future. Time to abandon my petty scorn and outline what I hope is a credible justification for my contempt. By no means do I want to suggest the band has not earned its distinction, only that its distinction is “popular but milquetoast indie rock band,” and that is hardly an achievement in my book/blahwg.
Weirdly enough, Pitchfork’s positive review of the band’s 2010 album High Violet provided me with quite a bit of ammunition for this takedown. The reviewer calls them “boilerplate indie,” “men’s magazine rock,” (??) a “reassuring” “salve” for our neuroses, etc. Turn the tone dial too much in the wrong direction, and the review could be a vicious pan. Like the band, it bends like a pretzel apologizing for the band’s lack of distinguishing features (by turning that very lack into a distinguishing feature, of course) more than saying anything substantive. Berninger’s lyrics, the review politely notes, dwell on the stresses of upper-class privilege, pre-middle-age angst, and aimless guilt. It’s no wonder the band strikes such a chord with today’s youth. Where Arcade Fire and some of its more enjoyable Montréal ilk (Spencer Krug’s projects, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, etc.) often scald the listener with musical hyperbole, The National is understated. The band has a fussy, cryptic naturalism about it, creating a false sense of intimacy with soft-rock string arrangements and mid-ranged tempos. Tedium sets in, and when the band injects more energy the result is just tedium on a more monumental scale.
While singer and songwriter Berninger can be alternately sardonic and just sad, the music around his words shows a paucity of daring and insight. Pitchfork calls songs like “Sorrow” (!) a “jog,” though “slog” seems more appropriate. Rather than sounding pretty, the orchestral arrangements the band uses makes them seem self-absorbed. Which they are, though that’s not entirely a bad thing in the realm of reflective songwriting. It’s not a noble kind of subtlety, the kind that complicates a simple surface or adds nuance. It’s a subtlety that subtracts meaning, making Berninger’s literal mumbling sounds more like a nervous, fidgety inability to communicate than the result of genuine troubles. Perhaps that should be “unwillingness.” Like Arcade Fire, the restraint comes across as a lack of gravitas, a deficit of charisma, wit, and imagination. (Note: seeing the band work in the film Mistaken For Strangers did nothing to change this impression, as it shows a very workmanlike group of individuals committed to their craft but never seeming enthusiastic about anything in particular. Contrast this with the almost manically creative Tom Berninger, the documentarian. We see few frames of his horror-schlock B movies and find they have more heart and beauty in them than hundreds of minutes of The National’s music.)
“Of course you hate this music, sir,” an astute, delicious-looking human will say, “because you love sensation and empty drama and delight in all kinds of gimmicks like in prog rock and silly dance music.” I will state the objection more clearly than this delectable bit of meat. My objection to The National has nothing to do with its mastery of the style they have adopted. At this, they are studied masters. From a sympathetic view, they seem like jewelers comparable to even more studious bands like Grizzly Bear. And where a performer like Spencer Krug will shift between 1970s rock, strange experiments with looping organs, solo piano albums, and God knows what else, The National appears immune to any creative itchiness or impatience whatsoever. Their songs focus on swathing lyrics in prettiness to make them go down easier. From a sympathetic view, this looks like commitment to an identity or a dedication to refinement and sobriety (well, the former anyway) rather than enthusiastic experimentation. Indeed, if you consider such meticulous refinement a virtue in music, I see no reason to devour you messily. All the same, I find myself implacably opposed to The National and the genre of which it is the apotheosis. I am not sympathetic, and for that reason I find The National the blandest kind of disposable “alternative” music. Plenty of bands taste worse in my mouth, but few stick so persistently in my throat on the way down.
Coming in part two, a look at Spencer Krug as the patron saint of good indie rock.