When music critics talk about Matt Berninger, lead singer of chamber-rock band The National, it’s usually in the context of discussing his baritone singing voice. (He jokes that it’s been compared to every brand of whiskey in existence.) But, while his voice does take you off guard, I’ve always been more fascinated with the lyrics he writes. Berninger adds just enough concrete detail to keep the songs grounded in reality but leaves the edges jagged and impressionistic so your mind is free to wander where it will. When I sat down with the band in September of 2007, I asked him about some specific lines from Paste’s #1 record of that year, Boxer. His explanation of the lyric I quoted from “Guest Room” was markedly different from my interpretation. And by “different,” I mean infinitely less disturbing. Read on.
“You swear you just saw a feathery woman carry a blindfolded man through the trees.” (“Mistaken for Strangers”)
Matt Berninger: There are lots of moments on the record about friends disappearing and losing friends and stuff like that. That line alludes to the idea of someone’s spirit being taken wherever it goes after death. I’m not actually very religious, but it’s a metaphor—being taken to heaven by an angel. But it’s not so much about the spirit as it is about having seen something unbelievable, and the need to tell someone that there are things out there that are amazing, ‘I’ve seen something I need to tell you about.’ I think that’s what that’s about. A lot of the lyrics I write involve images that just swing the song in a way that feels really good to me and there isn’t a literal explanation. They’re not riddles for the listener to solve.
“I was up all night again / Boning up and reading the American dictionary.” (“Brainy”)
MB: That song is about someone trying to pretend they’re smarter than they are and also maybe trying to catch up with somebody who they believe is way ahead of them, much smarter. I think the idea is, ‘there are things I’m learning that maybe you don’t know and you need me, and you should trust me because I was reading the American dictionary last night.’ The part about boning up is also a mixed metaphor, for um, you know, lust, and also studying. That song has a lot of weird details like keeping fingerprints in folders as though you’re collecting information about someone. But not just about someone in an investigative sense. It’s more like, ‘There are things you might not know, and I’m finding these things out so that you’ll need me more than you think you do.’
“Get inside their clothes with my green gloves / Watch their videos in their chairs.” (“Green Gloves”)
MB: It was hard to take that song and guide it away from being a stalker song or about somebody breaking and entering or somebody violating someone’s personal space. It’s more about trying to remember someone and sort of be them—someone that you’ve lost your connection with (maybe because of a death)—so you reconnect with them by getting inside their clothes, watching their videos, getting in their bed. You’re actually recreating them somehow in order to know them better. You miss them so much you have to become them.
If there’s someone you absolutely miss, you might find yourself talking to them a lot in your mind, creating those fake conversations with them and you answer yourself in their voice in your head. Maybe it’s a girlfriend who dumped you or you know someone who died or that sort of thing, you adopt their personality or the memory of who they were as a means of staying close to them. People talk about spirit, but I have this idea that when we die, we’re gone. All that lives on is our memory and how we affected people, the way we changed people throughout our life. Whether you’ve had a good effect of a bad effect on people, that’s your afterlife—the people who live on after you.
“I wanna hurry home to you / Put on a slow dumb show for you / And crack you up.” (“Slow Show”)
MB: That one’s actually kind of literal, wanting to get out of some anxiety-filled public situation, where there’s a party of something and you just want to escape and be home, close the doors with someone that you really care about and just be stupid and laugh. Forgetting about social pretenses and how you have to act in public, you can just be a fool with this person, you know, ugly and awkward and silly and they won’t judge you.
“You’ll find us here in the guest room where we throw money at each other and cry.” (“Guest Room”)
[What I mistakenly thought it was about: I had an image in my mind that resembled that scene at the end of Requiem for a Dream in which Jennifer Connolly’s character is being forced to engage in lesbian sex in her pimp’s apartment living room with a mob of leering businessmen in suits crowded around shining flashlights and shouting. Connolly has this vacant, devastating look in her eyes like she wishes she could curl up in a ball and cry. Even though the businessmen aren’t throwing money, it would makes sense in that scenario. This is one of those rare occasions when I’m glad to be proven wrong.]
MB: Oh, that was sort of stolen from Grace Paley. She’s got a collection of shorts stories called Enormous Changes At The Last Minute and there’s a scene where some guy chases a woman down a sidewalk and at one point they’re having this argument and she throws like three dollars in change at him. It’s one of those really heartbreaking and absurd moments where it’s so pathetic, but its also kind of hilarious you know, they’re screaming at each other and she throws change in his face, or something. So, yeah, that was kind of taken from that, and then I think it was used in the song to represent those awkward intimate moments where you have those really stupid, ugly things that you do in a relationship when you get fed up with each other or whatever. You do things that are just ridiculous, but then you eventually let each other off the hook.