The National's Super-Political Love Songs
The singer and lyricist Matt Berninger talks about his band’s adventurous, election-influenced new album.
I spoke with Matt Berninger of The National on August 21, just as the solar eclipse was casting its shadow over the eastern United States. He’d been on the phone most of the day in Los Angeles and missed the celestial phenomenon, but nonetheless had a metaphor for the moment. “When Trump won it felt like the sky changed color a little bit, and literally that’s what’s happening right now as we speak,” he said with a laugh. “It’s pretty creepy.”
The National have been putting out albums of sumptuous, introspective rock for 16 years, and their seventh, Sleep Well Beast, should continue to grow their acclaim and fandom. It should also continue to get the band and its distinctively deep-voiced singer tagged as “gloomy,” a fair description given the album’s stated theme of divorce and straightforwardly devastating highlights like “Empire Line” and “Guilty Party.” But Sleep Well Beast, out Friday, is also one of The National’s liveliest albums yet, featuring pitter-pattering drum machines, scorching guitar licks, and Berninger experimenting with delivery styles.
One of the best lyricists of this era, Berninger writes in free-associative code that, with repeated listening, reveals fine portraits of self-doubt and desperation. Until talking with him, I hadn’t realized just how much of Sleep Well Beast had been shaped by recent politics. The National campaigned for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Berninger believes that the same dark, personal impulses he always sings about can explain Donald Trump’s rise. This conversation has been edited.
Kornhaber: There’s a sample or spoken-word segment about “the reality-based community” losing their power on the Sleep Well Beast track “Walk It Back.” What is that?
Berninger: Well, according to Wikipedia, it’s Karl Rove who said that to [the journalist] Ron Suskind, but I don’t think he officially admits to having said that. After Trump won, I just chewed on it over and over again. It’s basically someone saying, “Yeah, we know what we’re doing. If we can control people’s understanding of what is true then we get to do whatever the fuck we want.” That’s been the secret strategy for a long, long time.
Kornhaber: So what is that quote doing on what sounds, to me, like a song about a relationship?
Berninger: I don’t think of one song as being a relationship song and one being a politics song. It’s one big giant bowl of stuff for me. “Fake Empire” [from 2007’s Boxer] is a political song, but it’s also a song about getting fucked up and avoiding responsibility in life. It’s a drinking song, too.
Politics is personal. I don’t understand why people separate love and politics in their art—and I don’t know who does. We don’t expect people who write novels to be like, “Oh, this chapter is the political chapter and over here is the love chapter.” Somewhere along the line, musicians felt it was uncool to be political. It never made any sense to me. Who’s cooler than Nina Simone? And why would you take it out of your toolbox of stuff to write about?
Kornhaber: But when you think about the world, you think about the dynamics of politics being the same as the dynamics of relationships?
Berninger: How you respect yourself or someone else in the most immediate relationship is political. If somebody sitting next to you in a movie theater is eating popcorn in a way that bugs you, your choice to go, “ugh, shut up,” or your choice not to do that is political. How you treat your wife is political.
I’m a big believer that the tiniest little things you do have a significant effect: “I’ll do the brave, kind thing versus the self-serving, ego-driven fear thing that gets me the piece of pizza or the tax cut or anything else.” When you choose to do the small thing, the petty thing, the selfish thing, it affects everything.
If you go out and look at political songs and political signs, so many of them come back to the same thing about kindness and gentle hearts. So love songs are super political to me, and political songs are super romantic.
Kornhaber: You sing a lot about sleep on this album. It’s in the title, the first single is about dreaming, and you seem to be addressing someone who’s asleep a lot of the time. What are you getting at?
Berninger: Trauma causes lots of reactions, and a lot of times we have to shut down for a while. I was kind of fascinated with that. There’s a time where you stare at the ceiling and think, “If I can just get some sleep, when I wake up something will have resolved itself.” And often it helps! Dreams are a way of expressing some dark fear we’ve got to get out one way or another.
In that sense we are in some sort of bad dream right now—I mean that kind of literally. Our American conscience went to a very sleepy place, and we allowed Donald Trump to become our president. It’s not just America; we’ve all been letting the planet get so sick. The beast [as in “Sleep Well Beast”] is the future, the truth. It’s about to come back, I hope.
Kornhaber: On a songwriting level, I listen to a song like “Guilty Party” and it feels so much more direct than some of your past work. Is that true or am I missing something?
Berninger: That’s an example of a song where it’s a real simple thing: Unpack one little idea and all the shades of that idea. “Guilty Party,” that’s a breakup song. It’s kind of about my marriage, but my wife and I are not broken up, and I think we have a healthy marriage most days. It’s also kind of about the band—that’s a relationship that is hard to maintain and not lose sight of why you’re doing it. So “marriage” comprises a lot of different things. The tone was intentionally supposed to be kind of unencumbered by flourishes, and I didn’t want to overwrite.
There’s a sketch called “Black Barn” that split into two different songs, “Sleep Well Beast” and “Guilty Party.” They’re the same beat but the one [count] is in the different place. “Guilty Party” is like the good-looking, popular twin. I hear that and instantly I’m like, “That song just works.” Whereas “Sleep Well Beast” is the moody twin that sits in the corner and reads books and doesn’t try to date the prettiest girl in the class.
Kornhaber: Can you talk about the dynamic of writing with your wife [Carin Besser, co-credited for all the lyrics and melodies on Sleep Well Beast]? Is it therapeutic or tension-causing or both?
Berninger: Obviously both. We started writing together the minute we started dating. “What do you do?” “Oh, I make websites and rock songs and martinis. What do you make?” [She] was a poet and a writer and an editor. So we just started sharing our creative stuff right away. I would let her listen to demos, and she’d give ideas on how to make it better on every level.
Here’s an example. “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” was a totally different song. We were supposed to be finished with it, and the band was fighting about what was wrong with it. It was late in New York and it was a little earlier in L.A., and she called me and she said, “You know, I think the problem with that one is the lyrics.” She went and opened up old Garage Band sessions and found something where I mumbled about the system sleeping in darkness. She was like, “That’s a way better chorus, let’s build from there.”
She’s outside of the crucible, and the other guys know she makes me way better as a writer. She’s had two nicknames. One has been Yoko, ever since we met, and that sometimes stings and sometimes it’s fun. We all have hurtful nicknames for each other. But they also refer to her as The Oracle.
Kornhaber: Who is Valentine Jester [a name mentioned on the new song “Day I Die” and 2005’s “Val Jester”]? Is that a real uncle of yours?
Berninger: Yeah, my mom’s uncle. He was a bachelor who moved in with my mom’s mom and lived with her the whole time I knew him. He loved television, dominoes, and beer. And for some reason I always write about him. He was always a sweet, happy man—but too many beers he would turn into a cranky guy who didn’t want to hang out at the family reunion. He loved to skip the fuck out. I’ve always respected that. He didn’t want to do what everybody thought he should do in his life.
Kornhaber: Why keep invoking him?
Berninger: He’s a spirit animal a little bit. I didn’t know him well, but he’s a character in my brain, the idea of my uncle Valentine Jester. I can’t even remember how old I was when he died. I don’t know how old he was either. But he had a profound effect. That, for me, is afterlife, y’know? That’s heaven.
Kornhaber: I want to ask about white maleness.
Berninger: Excellent, yes!
Kornhaber: Some people, not all of whom are fans of yours, have held you guys up as a very stereotypical kind of white male band. I’ve picked up on a little self-awareness about that through your whole career, but what do you think?
Berninger: No one needs any more of our stories. Everyone knows what it’s like to be a white man, because every lead actor in 99 percent of stories being told has been a white man. So yes, I’m very conscious of it. If I’m going to try to write and make art, I’m going to have to be aware of the fact that everyone knows what white dudes’ problems are. I at least have to be talking about it more directly and in a different way.
It’s not like I’m ashamed of being a white man, or being a man. Let me put it this way. I was raised Catholic. And it’s obviously a really oppressive religion to women. But also institutionalized religions are just generally repressive. The kind of guilt I had as a kid about dirty magazines because of the Catholic church—I had so much self-loathing. And I’m right at Broadway: a white, straight, American dude from the Midwest. Nobody’s coming for me. To be aware of that, and to then try to write songs where you are overly sympathizing with your own issues—it’s scary territory, feeling sorry for yourself. It’s definitely thin ice that I’m on.
Kornhaber: It is something you make fun of sometimes. I think of that song “I’m the Man to Be” from the El Vy record [Berninger’s side project].
Berninger: Yeah, that song is a cathartic expression of celebrating your own most ridiculous, self-aggrandizing impulses. I do that a lot. “All the Wine” [from 2005’s Alligator] is the same song. They’re self-deprecating portraits of me puffing myself up because I’m so clearly filled with self-loathing. People always ask me, “Why do you always mention your dick in songs?” I’m like, “Because I’m probably insecure as a lover! Why are you asking? Of course!” I’m not pro-dick.
Kornhaber: In “Turtleneck,” you sing about a rich male savior of the poor who’s wearing a shitty suit. Were you thinking of anyone specific there?
Berninger: Obviously, Trump is Trump. Trump is what it is, and it’s evolving every five minutes. You know at the end of Terminator 2? When the liquid terminator turns into a demon and a man and it’s screaming as it’s dying. I feel like Donald Trump, and the Republican party, is in those last moments of when the Terminator is screeching. That is my brother’s hopeful interpretation.
Hopefully it’s the death throes of an illness of America. The racism, the sexism, but it’s also the self-hatred. Our country has these puritanical values, and we’ve repressed ourselves because it’s a way of controlling. When you make people feel guilty about something, sex or whatever it is, you control their sense of what defines them as being better than other people. Religion infects people with this idea of superiority. And it’s not Jesus’s.
Kornhaber: Going back to the album, which you’ve said is pretty dark, is there a happy ending on this album?
Berninger: I don’t think of a record as having an ending—movies and books have an ending. But I do think about our records as being ultimately really optimistic and positive things just because they make me feel better. It feels good to make a rock song out of this ugly mess. I sleep better having made some art out of the fact that I didn’t know how to deal with my own self-loathing about being a horny white man afraid to cross the street.
Kornhaber: Speaking of sex being at the the core of all our dark desires: Leonard Cohen. You have a reference to him with the song title “Dark Side of the Gym.” What do you take from him?
Berninger: He wrote about sex, he wrote about God, he wrote about politics, all within the same verse. And they all were these beautiful, personal little stories. Everything feels so humongous, but then they also have all these little details.
“Famous Blue Raincoat” is the one I go back to just because it’s like The Great Gatsby or Lolita. That song has so many little details—about a house in the desert, and a lock of hair, and all this kind of stuff—but it’s so big. That song is just a giant, complex story that I don’t quite understand.
He’s one of 20 songwriters that I steal from. Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave—people like that really go right to the most sensitive parts of the skin. Which are the wires that are frayed and sparking? Those are the ones they’ll put their wet hand on. Because they just have to. It’s the only wire in the room that matters, the one that might burn the place down.