Earlier today I was struggling through a hungover and very sweaty jog in the local park when one of my favourite songs came on my iPod. It was by a band called The National. I don’t know if it was down to the hangover, the fact I was struggling to breathe, or just a general bout of misery, but I began to feel a little upset that more people haven’t heard of this fantastic band. I started thinking about all the times I’ve told someone that they’re my favourite band, only to have them look at me, stick out their bottom lip, and say ‘Never heard of them.’ It kind of makes me despair of the world. I mean, everyone’s heard of One Direction, My Chemical Romance, and Cold-fucking-play. So I decided to write about them, and what they mean to me, so that maybe two or three more people will know who they are.
I’m talking about Fake Empire first because it was the first song I heard. I really do work by complicated logic. Hearing this song for the first time was one of those rare moments for me, when you hear a piece of music and it creates a lasting image in your mind, allowing you to remember exactly where you were at time, exactly what you were doing. I was sat at a desk in Derbyshire playing Football Manager on my PC (I know): next to me was a stack of CDs I’d borrowed from a friend so I could put them on my very first MP3 player. There was The Cold War Kids, The Holloways, The Pigeon Detectives, The Cribs, Pete and the Pirates, and a few others I’ve long forgotten. Out of the bands listed, only The Cold War Kids creep their way onto any playlists I make today.
But in one of those cases was a blank CD. No words on the cover. I slid it into my very beautiful but now sadly deceased CD player and pressed play. The simple piano loop started and I briefly turned away from Football Manager, turning back when my team scored a goal. Then Matt Berninger started to sing, in his morose, gravelly voice, and I managed to pull myself away from the game, which was a very rare occurrence in those days, and listen to the whole song. All the very clichéd things happened. The hairs on my arms stood up, I got a lump in my throat, a shiver down my spine. And then I played the song again.
I texted the friend who had leant me the albums and asked him what was on that blank CD. Who was that deep voiced dude who sounded a little bit like Johnny Cash? He told me he had no idea. It took me a long long time to find out who The National were, but I didn’t care. I listened to that album again and again and I’m still listening to it now.
I wanted to put a live version of this song above, so I could demonstrate what I’m going to talk about, but the only one I could find had Jools Holland’s face on it so I couldn’t include it. My fingers wouldn’t let me.
I’ve put this song second so I can quickly explain the strange title of this post. The opening line of Lit Up is ‘My bodyguard shows her revolver to anyone who asks.’ For four years that was not what I heard. I only realised that the line wasn’t ‘My bodyguard shows her vulva to anyone who asks’ when I was singing along to the song while cooking a curry and my ex-girlfriend started laughing so much that she fell off the sofa. She told me the actual line. I argued. I insisted I was right. This taught me two things: in the Google age you can only argue about these things for so long, and it is never a good idea to type the phrase ‘my bodyguard shows her vulva’ into an internet search engine.
This song was also the highlight of the first them I saw them live. I’d booked tickets for The Royal Albert Hall and was astounded, when led to the seats, to find out that we were in the second row less than ten metres from the band who were, by then, quite possibly my favourite people on the planet.
It’s hard to explain The National live. For such a mellow band they make an awful lot of noise. They are so tight that you never hear a single mistake, and, when they change up the songs as many live bands do, it is never to their detriment. In fact, their songs go up a level when played live. Chilled out ballads become epic, driving to huge crescendos which, if you’re anything like me, will make you flail your arms about randomly and probably shout out words that are not actually words at all.
And all of this is built around Berninger. He stands centre stage, slowly banging his hands together in exactly the same way during every song, looking slightly like a bearded Rain Man, until he suddenly erupts and flickers around the stage or runs into the audience. Or, as was the case during Lit Up at The Royal Albert Hall, all the way through the crowd, dodging security, to climb up to the stalls and touch the hands of his fans. He’s a mesmerising front man. There is something so involving, and reminiscent of Ian Curtis, about his random movements and unpredictability. They’re touring later this year. Go and see them.
This song’s in here for a few reasons. One, because it’s incredible. Two, because it’s their best and most amusing video. Three, because it won me an argument. Four, because it was the song playing during my most intimate moment with the man himself, Mr Matt Berninger.
The first two reasons don’t need explaining so I’ll jump to the third. I was on my way to the Royal Albert Hall with my ex, sitting on the train drinking wine from plastic cups. She was telling me she was worried the gig wouldn’t be as good as we hoped. She wasn’t impressed by the new album. In her eyes, High Violet was nowhere near as good as the two previous albums. For me, it isn’t as good as Boxer (but then nothing is), but it’s certainly on a par with Alligator and it’s better than anything that came before. I’d tried to tell her that. I said that she was probably not that into the album because she’d spent the weeks since its release revising and writing essays and that is hardly the best way to appreciate a new album.
I put one headphone in her ear and another in mine. After every song I turned to her and asked her what she thought and she shrugged. Then, Bloodbuzz Ohio. I felt her fingers tapping on mine, saw her eyes widen and a smile creep onto her face. I laughed.
I was finally winning the argument. And I like to win.
And now to my intimate moment with Berninger. I should tell you that I was very drunk, I regretted it in the morning, and I like to think that I wouldn’t do it again. He came into the crowd during Bloodbuzz Ohio. He shook people’s hands, doled out the hugs. And something, quite possibly the beer, prompted me to push people out of my way, run to where he was, and mount his back. No penetration occurred. Rather than throwing me off, though, or wildly gesticulating to security, he preceded to carry me, piggy back style, for a good thirty seconds while he sang the chorus.
I couldn’t write this post without talking about Slow Show. This is the song. My favourite song by this band or by any other band that has ever existed.
But there was a time when I couldn’t listen to it.
I’ve been in three long term relationships in my life, each of them punctuated by one particular song. The song that was there at the start of the relationship, persisted throughout, and then marked the end, before slowly disappearing for good, or at least for a while. With my secondary school girlfriend it was Savage Garden’s Truly Madly Deeply. With the next; Thank You by Dido. You would probably say that I was lucky to have these two songs so suddenly wiped from my life in the way they were. I’d have to agree.
But when my most recent relationship ended, it was probably only a couple of days later that a distressing thought struck me. Shit. Slow Show. Am I going to have to stop listening to it? And, seeing that me and her pretty much listened to The National every day and had seen them together four times, was I going to have to stop listening to them all together? Was I losing a band as well as a girlfriend?
For a couple of months that was the case. It was a bit too upsetting to listen to them and I don’t mind admitting that. We’d had a very decent and amicable break-up, but if I was angry with her about anything in those early days it was that she’d stolen The National from me, keeping them with her when I moved out, locking them in a cupboard I could no longer get to.
Lazily jogging by a canal in the Peak District, running out of energy and thinking of sitting on the floor, a song came on my iPod. I’d forgotten to delete it from the playlist. I fumbled in my pocket, pulled out the iPod leaving sweat marks on the screen, and moved my finger towards the skip button. Then I stopped. I listened to the driving drum beat, the slow build in the lyrics, and the sweep of the guitar and my legs started working again. I ran all the way home. And I haven’t stopped listening to them since.
For me, this is the most perfect song ever written. The reprieve, in which Berninger repeatedly sings the line ‘You know I dreamed about you, for 29 nine years before I saw you’ is my favourite ever lyric.
I could go on forever but I won’t. Instead, I’ll just leave one more video at the bottom, and tell you that, if you’ve liked what you’ve heard, you should listen to Apartment Story, Mistaken for Strangers, Karen, Afraid of Everyone, Wasps’s Nest, I Need My Girl. Actually, just listen to it all.