a conversation about Matt Berninger
Timothy Aames & Derek Hamm
I’m hoping this finds you well, perhaps with cooler days than the last time I saw you. Perhaps with a bit more rest—though many thanks for waking up at 5am to cook us breakfast. Perhaps skipping that Hilton Als story and moving on to other things in that tessellated book of ours.
As for the reason I write: Matt Berninger, the baritone voice of The National, is one of only a handful of songwriters whose lyrics have been highlighted in mainstream music criticism in the past few years.
Do you remember the moment you first noticed his words? I can’t be sure: I was either in my bedroom, a year and a half ago, catching bits and pieces of “Karen,” or I was working at Ipsento, and “Fake Empire” came on and Ryan looked at me, impassioned—and potentially high—as usual, and said, “‘We’re half awake in a fake empire.’ That’s fucking amazing, man.”
One of the first things I noticed was the fantastical language. Utopian and dystopian worlds both seem to mist out of the music all throughout High Violet—on Alligator and Boxer too. Silver cities, lemonworlds, fake empires. But though his excursions come often, they also end quickly. As if his escapes into fantasy are always cut short, and he’s thrown out of his own creation. Banished from the Garden.
At times, his own ethereal worlds turn into nightmares, like Cesar’s in Alejandro Amenabar’s Abre los ojos: “We’ll leave the silver city / cause all the silver girls / gave us black dreams.” Later, he becomes the monster: “I was afraid / I’d eat your brains / Cause I’m evil.”
And he seems to be getting more and more frightened of himself as he goes along (“Afraid of Everyone” suggests this and more.) Thoughts? I’m curious where it’s taken you.
* * *
Weather cooled, rest acquired, Als skipped. It’s opening night for college football this season, so I’m on the couch. Pittsburgh is trailing Utah by three late in the fourth quarter. Do you remember that time? In the Motel 6 in Columbia? Pittsburgh was playing then too—but it was basketball. The opponent was Bradley, so the scoreboard read “Brad Pitt.”
It’s fitting that you chose Matt Berninger to write me about. I’m still getting used to having a car with a CD player and have a habit of leaving the same couple discs in for long periods of time. So High Violet has been with me from the streets of Kansas City to the nothingness of Eastern Colorado. I’d say if you’ve listened to an album in Eastern Colorado, you know it intimately.
You ask when I first remember his words. I think it would have been the song “Minor Star of Rome.” It’s a B-Side that came with the 2006Believer Music Issue, but I heard it later because it was a back-issue. Honestly, it didn’t grip me. But I do remember the line preceding the title, “You’re miles behind your sister,” repeating over and over. Looking back at the full text, it provides a pretty good cross-section of Berningerian topics: empires, the middle-class, colors, dreams. It’s almost humorous, actually, how close he comes to validating your sentiment word-for-word: “Now you’re having other people’s dreams / And they’re really good / But you wake up just before they end.”
Oh. There is a praying mantis climbing the wall just above the TV. It’s like 5 inches long. How does a praying mantis just get inside a house? Resolving…
I’m not sure what to think of his fear and (self)-loathing. There’s this feeling of detachment that weaves through his songs, and the fantastical factor you’re talking about, combined with these really visceral objects and phrases. Tennis shoes, kid on my shoulders, eat your cake, England, Ohio, Los Angeles, silver, black, blue, red, orange. It’s almost banal at times. Like listening to a research scientist describe heartache. Open, but objective.
But just when you feel like he’s holding you underwater repeating some near-nursery rhyme, you’re pulled up by the neck, spun around a few times, and hit in the face with a multilayered metaphor or an impassioned admission of love, guilt, fear—feeling. Then the line cuts off mid-sentence, there’s some doo-doo-doos, and it begins anew. You feel me?
* * *
I wish you and your praying mantis friend the best. He seems useful in a pinch. Since I last wrote, I read a few things. First, Berninger rarely writes a song in one go. Second, he isn’t purposeful in his imagery. Third, he goes back and revisits characters, topics, themes, and stories from previous albums.
My favorite recurring character—mysterious, imposing, and somehow scornful—is Karen. We’ve both probably read enough interviews with writers to know that characters are almost always an amalgam of numerous real people, ticks taken and exaggerated, quirks spliced from the normal, routinely persons of intimate or wider circles, misremembered details and misconstrued relationships fixed through fictional reconciling.
And so it’s telling that Karen, who first appears on Alligator in a song named for her, is defined through the imperative mood: “Karen, I’m not taking sides.” “Karen, put me in a chair.” “Karen, take me to the nearest city middle.” Direct commands.
But we need more. “Karen, I’m not taking sides / I don’t think I’ll ever do that again / I’ll end up winning and I won’t know why / I’m really trying to shine here, I’m really trying / You’re changing clothes and closing windows on me all the time.” Forget the subtle homophone-as-internal-rhyme he sugared into the last line. Note, again, the fear. His tone is apologetic, petulant—he’s definitely not sure he’ll be forgiven. Something true of every apology ever spoken I suppose. But this song, like others—“Conversation 16,” “Slow Show”—is a microcosm of the reality of relationships, and it’s in his bizarre details that he creates such tangible, recognizable worlds.
“Karen, we should call your father / maybe it’s just a phase / He’ll know the trick to get a wayward soul to change his ways / It’s a common fetish for a doting man / To ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand / Karen, put me in a chair / fuck me and make me a drink / I’ve lost direction and I’m past my peak / I’m telling you, this isn’t me / Karen, believe me, you just haven’t seen my good side yet.”
Though more disconcerting when written, the sexual imagery seems natural when sung, less a gratuitous joyride, and more an honest portrait of that leery, macabre misanthrope that inhabits the darker corners of all our minds.
Though this relationship is defined by the imperative, Berninger does seem to mature as he goes, or his characters do. In “Slow Show,” he wants to hurry home to his love and escape the pressure to impress. Yet even then, he’s riddled with anxiety that he won’t pull it off: “God, I’m so very frightened I’ll overdo it.” Perhaps none of us ever quite know how to be ourselves around new people. Everything and nothing seems right. And in the end, psychoanalyzing fictional relationships may not be any healthier than creating them in the first place.
* * *
See this is what I was afraid of. You write introducing the project, I respond with some general musings about football and insects, and then you come back with what could be a decent rough draft for a doctoral thesis on Matt Berninger’s relationship to himself and the world. But I saw this coming. So I enlisted help, phoned a friend. I wasn’t sure when or how exactly this would work in. And then it came—in a text message no less.
“Did you know Matt Berninger was a graphic designer?”
So that explains the colors. An artist wants to express something, but a designer has a need for that expression to communicate. And there’s a relational aspect to his words that shows the constant tension that’s created when you’re measuring everything out as you pour it.
“With my kid on my shoulders I try / Not to hurt anybody I like.”
“You and your sister live in a lemonworld / I want to sit in and die.”
“I had a hole in my middle where the lightning went through / I told my friends not to worry.”
He isn’t afraid to feel pain, but to cause it. He’s not upset at others for the distance between them; he wants to join. He rarely makes a confession that isn’t coupled with a counter. When every statement is tempered, it’s up to their order to imply any sort of emphasis or resolution. And so the moments when the confession comes last are striking: “I didn’t want to be anyone’s ghost / But I don’t want anybody else.”
* * *
The sky is pink. The cold continues to snap. And you’re right. He’s unsure of himself and he’s unsure about himself. Two different but equally crippling things. But let’s pause for a moment to appreciate one thing Berninger inarguably does better than anyone else: he can batter the shit out of common colloquialisms. The man is a master of twisting turns of phrase.
“We got another thing coming” –> “We got another thing coming undone.”
“Wearing our hearts on our sleeves” –> “Make up something to believe in your heart of hearts so you have something to wear on your sleeve of sleeves.”
“Fools rush in” –> “I wanna rush in with the fools.”
“Vanity Fair” –> “Still in line for the vanity fair.”
But these merely appeal to the world’s wordsmiths. The deeper crux is not only the lyrics’ confession of fear of tangible things, like fucking up relationships, but of more existential quandaries. Like a tick, Berninger winces at how much meaning can be housed in a single action.
“I’ll try to find something on this thing that means nothing.”
And this gem from “Ada”:
“Stand inside an empty tuxedo with grapes in my mouth / waiting for Ada / Ada hold onto yourself by the sleeves / I think everything counts a little more than we think.”
This pretending he does led me to a thought that is certainly sacrilege to most Berninger fans: he’s almost the Tom DeLonge of the Oughts. Isn’t that what they’re calling them? Maybe the Aughts. If DeLonge was both reflection of wormy-eyed juvenility and spokesperson for the impassioned insecurity of unrequited infatuation for those growing up in the nineties, then Berninger is reflection and spokesperson for young people today.
It’s his self-deprecating humor and his introspection. His questioning but then his impatient “fuck its” when he can’t get an answer fast enough. It’s his brilliant snaring of a generation’s greatest sentiment: no veneer, no bullshit. Most interesting of all is that he isn’t the DeLonge of the day, but he’s DeLonge grown up. Just as we have. Because those insecure kids who put “Adam’s Song” on repeat every night back in 1999 are the same people gobbling up Berninger’s wiser, more poetic self-pities today. We’ve grown up, but we’re still insecure, still awed and scared and confused about how much things mean.
* * *
Tom DeLonge? I don’t disagree necessarily—I just didn’t think we’d be discussing him in this conversation. Or ever again, really. But I can run with it. And I think Aughts is correct. It’s only the Oughts if you regret them.
I actually think you’re on to something with this 182-degree turn. About why lyrics matter in music. Or more specifically, why music matters to lyrics. It gives us a chance to live in those thoughts for a while. Not many people want to mull over an existential crisis in silence for hours on end, but if you can do it on a long drive while humming a bass line (or meticulously working the switches on a dual-cassette recorder in the pre-Aught-oman empire of our collective basements) then it doesn’t seem so strange.
And most importantly, it can be shared. It’s packaged in a neat little capsule that we can all take together. My friend, from before, sent a longer collection of thoughts, and it mirrored your last group of sentiments almost perfectly: the simultaneous meaningfulness and meaninglessness of things, how those two are never quite reconciled. You two have never met, but now somehow you have this shared experience together.
You sent me a National song once, I just couldn’t remember how. But thanks to the magic of Google auto-save, I found it—a chat no less—and I enjoyed rediscovering it so much that I’ve printed it here in its entirety. It’s pretty amazing really, where it ends up. Especially considering its genesis:
me: rim tim tim
that would be your dog name
Timothy: twould be. would yours be hambone?
me: hambone jr.
Timothy: because your dad was hambone or because you think the jr. just adds something
me: well i would be smaller
and i like abbreviations like that
Timothy: so you might name your kid Wm. Jos. Jr. just for shts and ggls
now is that good or god? you don’t know
Timothy: not if i meant purposeful disrespect
*the sound, not my last name
me: …my friend asked what you did the other day
i was unsure how to answer because i feel like you have a leg up on the traditional “bachelors degree coffee-shop employee”
that leg being at least some sense of direction in life
Timothy: zero direction actually
i mean i have what i love, but that’s about it
me: right, and not that there’s anything wrong with coffee-shops or no direction, i just feel like i have friends that i would have just said “works at a coffee shop” and felt fine about it
also whether intended or not, your last statement was pretty profound
i mean, one could certainly be worse off
Timothy: certainly. that’s why the 0dctn doesn’t bug me a bit
it used to, even a couple months ago
but with Al, and in Chicago, it’s becoming easier to live simply (that’s not simply as in without stuff, it’s simply as in without too much worry)
me: why, you don’t even need vowels anymore
Timothy: you taught me that
you have The National? Alligator
me: no, a couple old songs i think maaaaybe an old album, not sure
Timothy: there’s a song that made me think of you
Timothy: that’s the album name
lyrics: “I wake up without warning and go flying around the house, In my sauvignon fierce, freaking out, Take a forty-five minute shower, I put on an argyle sweater and put on a smile, I don’t know how to do this”
gotta head out
me: sorry to re-converse, but i’m curious as to the song’s name and why it reminds you of me
Timothy: i don’t know – the feel of it, at one point he talks about a “sauvignon fierce” and taking a 45 minute shower and wearing argyle sweaters
Timothy: i don’t know – just thought if you wrote a song it might be with the dry wit and apparent banality that the song employs
it’s called Baby, We’ll Be Fine
So how do we get past our fear and uncertainty? Those moments when, like Mr. Berninger, we’re kissing the mirror and talking to ourselves? I doubt we do, but there’s still hope. With all the back-and-forth lyrics, I think the clearest answer The National gives is the end of “Fake Empire,” when the talking stops and horns take over.
I say, Tim, get that high-hat rolling, I’ll learn the trumpet, and we can just ride this thing out. More people, less words. We have what we love. Baby, we’ll be fine.