I absolutely have a larger piece on The National in me. They are my favorite band, and I say that without hesitation. I’ve told the story already in my Three Songs for Three Heartbreaks piece, but if you haven’t read it, I first found them on Pandora radio. Probably Death Cab for Cutie radio, if we are being honest here.
I’ve only seen them live once, and it was after I had a hard year of not wanting to be alive for the majority of it. I had taken the man that raped me through court, and after pressure from my team, I agreed to a plea deal that still haunts me. The live performance was everything I had wanted and more. I had beer, growing warm in my hand, slippery condensation threatening to loosen my grip. I had brought a flask full of whiskey that we kept in the car and passed around before and after the show.
This was in 2016, and they played all the songs I wanted to hear, old and new. I haven’t seen them since, but it’s not for lack of trying; there is always something in the way, something that needs my money more.
The National is what some might call dad rock. A band of all middle-aged white men that make songs about despair. It definitely could fall into that category. What I have always appreciated and loved about the band is their ability to paint a picture, to tell a story, to make real and tangible something I had thought abstract. They were my top Spotify artist for like five years running. 2022 was the first year they weren’t in my top, but with a new album coming out, I’m more than sure they will make their appearance in 2023.
After seeing them live, I rushed to my then-girlfriend’s house to gush about how much fun I had. I had gone to see musicians I’d liked in concert before, but nothing had topped this. I was immensely smitten and grateful and glowing over it. Even when the sadder songs played, I felt high. It’s an experience I can’t wait to have again.
So, let’s get to ranking.
“Baby We’ll Be Fine” / Alligator
This is from an early album, and lead singer Matt Berninger’s voice is at its best here, low and gravely. I cried to this song a lot in 2016, when the trial was looming and the idea of the plea deal was on the table. What made me cry in the song are, of course, the lyrics.
“Baby we’ll be fine,
all we gotta do is be brave and be kind
I put on an argyle sweater and put on a smile
I don’t know how to do this”
I would get up and go to work every day and feel like an alien. At the climax of the song, he sings “I’m so sorry for everythingwp_postsand I was sorry, to myself, for putting myself in the position to be harmed (I was still struggling with self-blame in those days). I cried so much thinking of just how sorry I was. This was an emotionally devastating time for me and it’s the lowest on the list so prepare yourself for what’s to come.
“Mr. November” / Alligator
Something about the lyric “I’m the new blue blood, I’m the great white hopewp_postsmakes me very emotional. This song gets played a lot during just about any election cycle.
“Exile it takes your mind again
Exile it takes your mind again
You’ve got suckers’ luck have you given up?
Does it feel like a trial?
Does it trouble your mind the
Way you trouble mine?”
This song is from a video game and used to be available for streaming on Spotify but is no longer. It came out in 2017, a few months after the trial had ended, but every time I played this song I couldn’t help but think of that day. Sitting for hours in the courthouse, feeling like I was seeing out of a fish-eye lens as my advocate, the DA, his assistant, and the detectives leading my case sat around me, urging me not to take it to a jury trial. With the exception of my advocate appointed to me by a Pittsburgh rape crisis center, I felt like no one believed in me.
I’ve gone through lots of therapy and even written a manuscript about this experience, so there has been a lot of healing around it. But as you probably know, healing is not linear, and every time I hear this song I’m floated back to 2017, listening to this song as I drank in my bedroom or on the porch of my apartment, on the long walk back from work.
When I put on this song to this day, I still cry a little. It has beautiful, arching strings and tempered piano that make me wonder at what point in the video game this song starts to play. I know games can be grave and serious now, but I’m still thinking everything is Mario Cart or Crazy Taxi.
Does it trouble your mind the way you trouble mine? Woo, what a lyric.
Oooo oh my god wow. I’m already crying thinking of this song, also not on an album and also no longer available to stream on Spotify. This song perfectly captures despair, feeling out of your mind with it, feeling like a failure, like you cannot reach the best version of yourself. I felt that way for many years, especially in my struggle to get sober.
The song ends with a woman’s voice entering and singing
But I couldn’t be better
(All I have is loss)”
Like come one, how can you not get emotional listening to that! It’s meant for you to emote!
Trying to get sober was like pulling teeth. I tried when I was 17 and entering college one August, and then relapsed by my 18th birthday in October. I tried from the age of 23 to 25, and it finally stuck in February 2018. It took me so long because I believed the narrative that I couldn’t be better, I believed I was destined for failure, to die early and alone. I had to tell myself a different story to get where I am now.
This song was major for me during that period. Lots of big heavy cries to this one.
“Anyone’s Ghost” / High Violet
I specifically remember being in college on a break at home, walking through Pittsburgh’s East End, and crying to this song. Especially the lyrics, “Go out at night with your headphones on, againwp_postsbecause that was what I was doing. It was like the band was watching my every move. During this period, I was doing a lot of bad things including drugs and alcohol but also other stuff I don’t want on record. I didn’t hurt anyone but myself, but it was bad.
The song asserts “didn’t what to be your ghost, didn’t want to be anyone’s ghost.wp_postsI was my own ghost during this time. I was haunting the streets and haunting myself. I felt so out of my body. I would later learn after I sobered up that those were called manic episodes and I was bipolar, but I didn’t get there until at least five years later.
This song is at once the soundtrack to my angry crying and my mania, so it holds a special, precarious place with me.
“You Were A Kindness” / High Violet (expanded)
“You were a kindness when I was a stranger
but I wouldn’t ask for what I didn’t need
everything’s weird and we’re always in danger
why would you shatter somebody like me?”
This song is, for me, about being left. Whether that is by a lover or someone else close to me, the sting never goes away. I wrote about it a lot in the Death Cab piece, but this song was big for when I had been rejected by my biological mother, so I won’t rehash the devastating details again.
At one point, Berninger sings “It doesn’t work that way, wanting not to want you won’t make it sowp_postsand I was like hell yeah! that’s right! he gets it! and then I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
“Walk Off” / High Violet (expanded)
This is one of my favorite songs to sing along to.
“On and on they’ll lead us on and
On and on they’ll lead us on
We’ll all get high and walk off
into the country, the ridiculous country
where the blue sky will smother us
believe me believe me believe me”
This album came out in 2010, but I didn’t listen until 2011/2012, so this was prime for my college years of getting to know who I was outside of the dynamic of my abusive family. I was the doting daughter who got 4.0s and As and was her mother’s confidante and punching bag. I couldn’t get past being that woman for a long time. Like I mean it has been only five years since I really made the change and cut most of my family out of my life.
Because that was all I knew, I emulated those relationships with other people, especially other women. I was the one who was obsessed, a try-hard. They were cold and detached. I kept this up for years and years, always getting my heart broken, always crying to this song.
I would listen to this song at home in Pittsburgh or on campus and, true to its lyrics, feel absolutely smothered by my surroundings. I had big feelings that were clamoring to be felt. Listening to The National was the first step in getting those feelings out.
“Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” / High Violet (expanded)
When this song proclaims “Vanderlyle, crybaby, crywp_postsI took heed.
It’s got a big, steady sound to it with lots of swooping instrumentation. I think the composition makes me cry doubly, accompanied by the lyrics that are basically begging me to shed a tear. All the very best of us string ourselves up for love, as they say.
“Conversation 16” / High Violet
When I was running the streets doing bad shit, I believed I was evil. I thought I was a bad seed that had unlocked the bad in me through the power of drugs and alcohol. At that time, I was dating someone who told me he had a dream that he was tempted by a demon, and the demon revealed herself to be me. I, on one hand, knew it was bullshit, but I also kind of believed it. He had assaulted me, and I went to confront him, and he placed the blame on me. I know that now. But then? I was fragile and bought into the idea that something in me brought out the worst in others.
Conversation 16’s chorus goes
“I was afraid I’d eat your brains
I was afraid I’d eat your brains
‘cause I’m evil”
And there it was, outlined so clearly for me. I cried to this song so much, and even when I wasn’t crying outwardly, I was screaming and tearing at my arms and face, wondering what was so wrong with me that no one loved me and everything was my fault always.
I wouldn’t grow out of this thinking until I went through lots and lots of therapy. I now can appreciate this song as a really great, catchy song and not completely lose myself when it plays. I know I’m not evil, I’m not inherently bad, and there’s nothing about me that brings out the worst in others. I held on to that set of lyrics for so long, relating to it heavily, feeling it in every fiber of my being. Now, I just sing along, bobbing my head, thinking back on the person I was when I first heard this song.
“I’ll Still Destroy You” / Sleep Well Beast
“I keep rereading the same lines
always up at 5 a.m.
like a baby
it’s just the lights coming on
it’s just the lights coming on”
This is the part of the song where I lose it and just start weeping like a lunatic. Something about the way they hold the note on “lights.wp_postsWhen you live a dark life and believe in the darkness of the world, darkness as in deviled, you don’t always see the lights when they come on. Sometimes that light is a little pinprick, sometimes it is a wave. Somewhere in 2018 I started to see that little pinprick of light and dug through the walls until it became a wave.
Back in those days when this album came out, there was no part of me that didn’t believe I wasn’t destroyed. I felt, on every level, like a failure. I couldn’t hold a job, I couldn’t stop drinking or doing drugs, I couldn’t look at myself and stop the woman in the mirror from doing things she knew would hurt her. It was all terribly messy.
There’s a part of this song where Matt’s voice is isolated and he sings:
“I have no positions
No pint of view or vision
I’m just trying to stay in touch with
anything I’m still in touch with”
and the idea of holding on to something just because it is the thing you are holding at that moment resonates so much with me. In 2017, I was holding on to a bad relationship, holding on to friendships that didn’t fulfill me, and a family that made me feel small. I used to listen to this album kicking around the city, looking for a job when I didn’t have one, feeling entirely and wholly destroyed.
Getting sober, paying off my debts, and getting a stable job, all contributed to me feeling so much better about my life. Also, the gift of time and therapy. As I got farther and farther away from the trial that ruined me, I started to believe in my own goodness again. That is what this song means to me.
“Pink Rabbits” / Trouble Will Find Me
I listened to this song quite a bit when I was trying to get sober. The lyric that goes “am I the one you think about when you’re sitting in your fainting chair drinking pink rabbits?wp_postsmade me want to drink, and want to quit, all rolled into one.
Also, the lyrics
“you didn’t see me I was falling apart,
I was a television version of a person with a broken heart”
felt so real. I didn’t learn how to express my emotions in a healthy way, I felt like I was watching myself grieve, watching myself as I got drunk, made an ass of myself, danced, laughed, cried, fucked, grieved. It was all like a movie I was viewing and not participating in. I spent a lot of my life disassociated, and I didn’t learn this until around five years ago. I moved through the world like the ghost of a ghost. I couldn’t hold on to anything. Least of all myself.
When I listen to “Pink Rabbits,” I’m struck by the strength of the piano, the lyrics, and the way I feel like it’s a love song and a song about despair. Matt Berninger’s voice is softer and higher in this song, giving it a new feeling than say “Conversation 16.”
“This Is The Last Time” / Trouble Will Find Me
This song came out when I was in college, and I listened to it a lot when I was still on campus during the summer, doing research before my senior year. I lived in a dorm called Ravine neatly tucked almost off campus. I did research during the day, then drank with friends and my research partner at night. This wasn’t the first time I had elected not to go home during a break, but at the time, it felt like the last time I’d do this. I was struggling with wanting to and then not wanting to see my family. I knew what it meant to see them and listen to my mother say she wanted a divorce only to not ever get one, still married to my father to this day.
The lyrics of the song describe love like a swamp, and that resonated with me. My family’s brand of love was dark, murky, and suffocating. I couldn’t get away from it, even on these breaks I took from them.
So, I’d put on this song, walk around campus grabbing food and looking at spiders, and of course, crying. Missing my mom but also wanting desperately to never see her again.
“Sorrow” / High Violet
It seems dramatic to say, but listening to The National helped me understand my emotional life for the first time in a lot of ways. I finally had words for the things I was feeling, and someone else was singing them to me in this deep, beautiful voice. A voice I couldn’t escape that felt as though it was coming out of my own body.
I’m sure all of this feels and sounds dramatic to someone who isn’t a fan of the band, but for me, music is how I learned to emote. I felt connected to what I was feeling through song because I had to shove it down in my everyday life. I think that’s why I listen to so much music these days, it helps me feel grounded, seen, and heard. My headphones always strapped to my head, music blaring through them at all hours of the day.
Going back to the time I saw The National live, I knew I was too far back for Matt to be able to walk through the crowd as he likes to do, touching people’s hands and faces. I wanted that to happen though, I wanted to hold his hand and hope he could feel just how much this meant to me to be there in that moment at that time in my life.
The National will undoubtedly be going on tour for this new album, and if they are in a city near me, I’ve decided I’m gonna go. Wear my little mask and brave it. I am, after all, in such a different place than I was when I first saw them, when I first found their music. It means so much to be seen, to be heard, and I felt understood in their lyrics, even in the way the guitar hammers at the beginning of “Mr. November.” How the piano twinkles in “Exile Vilify.” How they use strings in any number of their songs.
I don’t know what else to say, I just fucking love this band so much. To be able to be myself in full has meant so much to me, and their music was a huge part of that revelation.
If you’re a fan, what songs are your favorites to cry to?