Taylor Swift and the Sad Dads
On the unlikeliest, most fruitful collaboration in contemporary music
The indie-rock band The National has long served as a mascot for a certain type of guy: literary, self-effacing, mordantly cool. With cryptic lyrics and brooding instrumentation, the quintet of scruffy brothers and schoolmates from Ohio conveys the yearnings of the sensitive male psyche. The band’s lead singer, Matt Berninger, has a voice so doleful and deep that it seems to emanate from a cavern. His typical narrator is a wallflower pining for validation from the life of the party—the romantic swooning of a man in need of rescue.
In the mid-to-late aughts, as The National was gathering acclaim with darkly experimental albums, another artist was rising to prominence: Taylor Swift. On the surface, these two acts are starkly different. Where The National’s songwriting is impressionistic, Swift’s is diaristic—built on personal stories that typically forgo abstraction or even difficult metaphor. Where The National’s charisma lies in its mysteriousness, Swift earnestly says just what she means. The National is known for somber dude-rock; Swift found fame with anthems of heartbroken but upbeat young-womanhood. (In her 2012 hit “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” she even jabbed at pretentious guys who are obsessed with dude-rock, like the ex who ran off to listen to “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.”) The National became the house band for a certain segment of Millennial yuppies; Swift became one of the biggest stars in the world.
So some listeners have been surprised to see the two emerge, in recent years, as close collaborators. After the pandemic interrupted Swift’s promotional plans for her 2019 album, Lover, she reached out to the multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner to help produce two new albums, Folklore and Evermore, the latter of which featured all five members of The National—whom she called her “favorite band”—in some capacity. The albums easily could have amounted to a credibility-chasing costume change: pop star goes coffee shop. Instead, they refreshed Swift’s style by pairing sophisticated, moody arrangements with a new lyrical approach. Rather than once again mine her own life for lyrics, she imagined fictional scenarios: a teenage love triangle, a murder conspiracy among friends, a romance between two con artists. Swift was availing herself of the freedoms, even imperatives, that men in rock and roll had long enjoyed—projecting moral ambiguity rather than wholesomeness and virtue.
Now it appears that Swift may have pushed the men of The National in new directions too. On the band’s latest album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, out in April, Swift’s influence feels pervasive. It’s not just her voice, which she lends to the lilting track “The Alcott”; she seems to have taught them something about the mode of candid self-expression that she has mastered. In so doing, The National and Taylor Swift have become one of the unlikeliest and most productive synergies in contemporary music—the cross-pollination of a gloomy indie-rock fraternity and proudly sentimental, stadium-charming pop.
Murky, male-driven art rock tends to encourage the confession of flaws without hope for absolution. Think of Leonard Cohen in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a self-lacerating mash note to the man who cuckolded him. Or take the mealymouthed misery of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe on “Losing My Religion”: “Oh no, I’ve said too much / I haven’t said enough.” Like his predecessors, Berninger tends to use oblique, figurative language to evoke his own shame and humiliation. “I know you put in the hours to keep me in sunglasses,” he sang on “Secret Meeting” (2005), possibly alluding to the tears he’d shed over a lover and the ways he’d tried to hide them.
But in First Two Pages of Frankenstein, the songwriting is tighter and often brighter, and Berninger’s meanings are remarkably direct. On the hopeful-sounding “New Order T-Shirt,” Berninger collages images with his trademark flair, and then, atypically, explains himself in a chorus that Swift herself might have written: “I keep what I can of you / Split-second glimpses and snapshots and sounds.” Over the danceable beat of “Tropic Morning News,” Berninger even tells a tale about learning to share his inner life: “There’s nothing stopping me now / From saying all the painful parts out loud.”
The changes in style reflect a change in substance. Many old National songs are character studies of a morose, hapless man getting nurtured—or dumped—by a competent woman. The trope of wife or girlfriend as mothering savior looms perpetually, even as Berninger’s humor, grounded in the mundane realities of adult relationships, usually undercuts it. “Carin at the Liquor Store”—a 2017 track whose title refers to Berninger’s wife and lyrical co-writer, Carin Besser—sees him mocking his own abjection: “I was a worm, I was a creature … I was walking around like I was the one who found dead John Cheever.”
But if The National’s signature narrator used to be a lonely mope, here he’s no longer wallowing quite so helplessly. On the new album, Berninger sings about being useful to his romantic partners. In the gentle, kind closing track, “Send for Me,” he offers: “Send for me whenever wherever / Send for me I’ll come and get you.” Even the breakup songs are a bit rebalanced. The thundering “Eucalyptus,” for example, depicts a couple dividing their belongings. Listening to it is like watching a bout of arm wrestling that’s closely matched and oddly poignant. And on the plaintive ballad “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend,” he’s the one consoling someone whose interior world is—as has been the case for so many of The National’s past narrators—an “awful place.” The new lucidity of the lyrics thus has a constructive purpose. As Swift’s songs have always shown, reaching out to connect with others requires openhearted, straightforward communication—from her outright plea “Baby, just say yes” on the 2008 classic “Love Story” to her simple admission “I’m the problem, it’s me” on 2022’s “Anti-Hero.”
Berninger does seem a little bashful about now acting as a healer. On “Alien,” he wryly suggests, “I can be your nurse or something.” Nursing, as that “or something” acknowledges, is a role that our culture hasn’t exactly shown men how to play. Those who try, in music, tend to overshoot into messianic territory (see Coldplay’s “Fix You” or U2’s past few albums). In dialing back the misery and adding Swiftian uplift, the new album sometimes flirts with this kind of sappiness. One can almost imagine “Send for Me” as the first dance at a wedding or “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend” in a touching insurance ad.
But the band guards against cheap inspirationalism by relying on the idiosyncrasies that have defined it all along. Its old motifs—romantic death and rebirth, sad saps saved by realists, drums that burst like flak cannons—now serve a new aim by acting as a reminder that empathy doesn’t come easily. Rescuing people can mean coaxing them to share how they really feel—and that process requires psychological struggle. On “Alien,” Berninger urges someone to “drop down out of the clouds you’re in.” A hint of conflict lurks in the line, acknowledging just how bracing such conversations can be. Real breakthroughs, these artists have shown in their work together, come from blunt and open exchange. As Swift and Berninger sing on “The Alcott”: “I tell you my problems / You tell me the truth … You tell me your problems / And I tell you the truth.”
This article appears in the May 2023 print edition with the headline “How Taylor Swift Infiltrated Dude Rock.”