Religious imagery has long been a mainstay in the National’s lyrics, and with the release of the band’s eighth album, I Am Easy to Find, it’s clear that frontman Matt Berninger still sees religious language as the best prism to articulate the ever-present human desire for transcendence and salvation. But if the band’s songs are about humans aching for something more, it’s not the Christian heaven, but a secular heaven located right here on earth.
Berninger delivers his dark mutter of a baritone with the incisiveness of a great satirist. Backing him are two sets of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Bryan and Scott Devendorf, who create the dripping, skittering soundscape around Berninger’s lyrics, which often are co-written with his wife, Carin Besser. Their protagonists are tragicomic misanthropes who read dictionaries for fun, wander through glaring cities, drink profusely, throw money at each other. And yet Berninger skewers the modern condition in a deeply sympathetic way: he’s right there alongside his characters in these slow burning songs, which tend to move like natural things, water or wind.
At first, the religious imagery seems merely decorative, at best a nod toward an aesthetic and moral worldview long faded, with nothing but tattered remnants left behind. As Berninger put it in a 2008 interview, “A lot of the lyrics I write involve images that just swing the song in a way that feels really good to me…there isn’t a literal explanation.”
For example, in the apocalyptic “Little Faith,” from 2010’s High Violet, the narrator uses and discards religious language dispassionately. We’re borne along a post-religious, almost dystopian landscape, a witness to monotony, horror, and a certain black comedy. A “little faith” is good “to make us laugh,” but not much more. It tags along as we embrace the easy banality of destruction in our modern world, setting “a fire just to see what it kills.” The narrator, marooned, is “stuck in New York as the rain’s coming down.” In a surreal take on a childhood game like cops and robbers, he and his fellow citizens of the bored, lonely city “play nuns versus priests until somebody cries,” just because there’s nothing else of value to do. The only hope, distant as it is, is to leave everything behind, even “our excellent souls,” and “head to the coast.” It’s either that, or remain stranded in “line at the Vanity Fair.” Even as the storm rages, the pretty girls are sucked into the sky, and Radio City sinks.
“Little Faith” is a storm in many ways. It begins with jagged distortion, almost like white noise; the aural equivalent of the curling colors on a Doppler radar screen. Its religious language is nothing but debris. Nuns and priests are temporary tools, meaningless except as playthings, quaint curiosities, or just more flotsam caught up in the rain-soaked gutter. Along with the soul, they’re to be discarded at the first sign of weather.
But there is also a secret optimism to these songs. The music is driving toward nothing less than salvation, on both a personal and existential level. Heaven is all over the National’s catalog.
“We’ll all arrive in heaven alive” Berninger sings plaintively, his voice dusting the top of his range as the strings swell at the end of “Heavenfaced,” the midway point on 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. On that album’s third song, “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, the vacillating narrator “ recounts a vision of a “bright white beautiful heaven hanging over me.” On 2007’s Boxer, the sad, overserved boys of “Squalor Victoria,” raise their “heavenly glasses to the heavens.” A “feathery woman” carries “a blindfolded man through the trees” in “Mistaken for Strangers,” an image which Berninger himself attributes to a story from his youth of his great-grandfather borne to heaven by angels.
“Could you tell her I made the headlines?” he mumbles in “29 years,” from the National’s first, self-titled album. “This is a boy who draws wings on everything.”
Here, heaven is the very real human desire for transcendence, but that transcendence is only possible with self-sketched wings, and it might only take you as far as Brooklyn.
The band ponders the longing for transcendence when there are no pearly gates to be found anywhere, really. There is a heaven to be faced, but it isn’t the one we expect. Whether the sky above is some paradise away from the earth, or simply the sky, the reality for Berninger is that in terms of heaven, the best we can do are the small moments right here, right now; the moments we make and we experience.
Berninger doesn’t “believe…necessarily that there’s angels, and afterlife and heaven and hell…I think that’s all right here. But I love to use those images because I do believe that the metaphors are true…I believe in the metaphor of heaven and I believe in the metaphor of angels. I think they’re all just ways of communicating about ourselves.”
Or, as Ludwig Feuerbach put it in Essence of Christianity: “man’s belief in God is nothing other than
his belief in himself, that in his God he loves and reveres nothing else than
his own being.” Feuerbach was convinced
that if God is nothing but a big, perfect human, than God is nothing, neither
to be approached nor worshipped.
The National seems to agree. Across their songs heaven is projected as much as God is, even if they imply the religious trappings we’ve adapted and absorbed over the course of the American project should be recognized as mere ornamentation and discarded.
But the National’s lyricists have not discounted the power of religious ideas entirely. Heaven is an ideal toward which we all should be drawn. It happens when we truly see each other, and it’s accessible right here and right now.
But lessening the space between us is hard, painful labor. As the singer admits on the new album’s second single, he’s still “light years away from you.” Those we love, marry and raise are often the furthest away. h
“You felt like heaven stood up with you” he sings on “You Had Your Soul With You,” the new album’s opener, which was penned by Besser. You said love fills you up / It moves you from the scattered sin and pulls you around.” Love gives us mobility to transcend the muck of fallen life, but only if we acknowledge that it is as much a part of us as our failings.
In mystic traditions, this is the first step toward enlightenment, a self-knowledge which leads to total abandonment to a God who is love. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola begin with a thorough examination of the self, to pinpoint the places where a person is failing. Only when those sins are recognized can the exercitant commence in “seeking and finding God’s will.” Berninger takes an analogous step to those mystics, but he takes it earthward, back towards the ones he loves.
It’s a secular move, but one with a certain kind of grace. The grace to let go, to move on, to recognize the gleam of precious humanity in everyone, despite just how awful everything can be. At the end of the day, this gleam is what makes us all so “easy to find.”
That’s salvation for Berninger and co., a heaven which at any given time could be Los Angeles or a liquor store or simply “standing in the sunlight / in the middle of the street.” In other words, wherever people are, in all our wounded glory.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Jack Nuelle
Jack Nuelle is a writer currently based in Boston. He received his BA from the University of Chicago and M.T.S. from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. His previous writing has appeared in the National Catholic Reporter and the South Side Weekly, among other places. Follow him on twitter @j_c_nuelle.