And so, my friends, we have come to the last day of the challenge. I have been saving a very special song for this occasion. There are several other days on which it would have been an excellent candidate, but I thought I should go out in style.
The National are a marvellous American band that are likely off the radar of most music listeners, but are a huge favourite of those that know their work. They garnered significant alternative music press acclaim with their 2007 album Boxer, especially the standout single “Fake Empire”. And, true, Boxer is a wonderful record. But in my humble opinion, I think The National really raised their game to another level with the 2010 album High Violet. I loved High Violet so much that I bought the CD, then bought the expanded-edition double-CD when it came out, then bought the double-gatefold vinyl version last month on the way home from buying my new turntable. If their label releases it on 8-track tape or wax cylinder I’ll probably buy the damn thing again!
It’s really difficult to explain The National’s sound in mere words. It seems to draw from alternative country, alternative rock, folk, and even chamber music, but that doesn’t do justice to their unique sound. The music is definitely not love-at-first-listen; songs by The National reveal themselves slowly over several listens, but then bond to your DNA and never let go. They prefer to play in the shadows with shades of grey, not in broad daylight with primary colours. At first the songs seem brooding, melancholy, and maybe even droll or depressing. I’m not a musician, but I would guess this has something to do with the keys they write in and the downbeat rhythms they tend to employ. The lead singer’s desolate baritone voice surely plays a role as well.
What I adore about The National, and particularly the songs on High Violet, is that they are more than just pretty melodies and engaging rhythms. It’s like how great food is about more than just flavour – it’s also about texture and presentation. Or imagine a piece of fine wood furniture – the finely-polished surface and handsome curves merely serve to reveal the gorgeous grain of the wood below. There are a lot of ingredients at work simultaneously, and the end result is much greater than the sum of its parts.
My favourite song at this time last year is the second-last song on High Violet. In fact, “England” is still on a very short list of my favourite songs today. This song is a master class in slowly building from a quiet introduction to a spectacular climax. It’s the musical equivalent of throwing a couple of logs on a nearly-extinguished campfire and watching the embers grow into a roaring conflagration.
The words to this song, like many on High Violet, are almost willfully obscure but they seem to paint a portrait of a desolate man who has been abandoned by the love of his life. There’s a definite sense of longing and resignation that is amplified by the bittersweet melody, the horns, and the slowly-rising rhythm section. My favourite lines are obfuscated gems like these:
Someone send a runner through the weather that I’m under for the feeling that I lost today
Someone send a runner for the feeling that I lost today
Put an ocean and a river between everybody else, between everything, yourself, and home
Put an ocean and a river between everything, yourself, and home
You must be somewhere in London
You must be loving your life in the rain
You must be somewhere in London
Walking Abbey Lane
I don’t even think to make corrections
The story is incomplete. We can’t really tell if his lover left on her own accord, or if he drove her away, or if some other circumstance split them apart. But the depth of his sorrow and grief is unmistakable.
The greatest triumph of “England” is that it somehow captures the cathartic joy of hitting rock bottom, of knowing that there’s nowhere else to go but up. It’s not as simple as wallowing in self-pity; it’s more like realizing that the painful moments in life will eventually make the jubilant moments seem even better. I went through a really tough period at this time last year. In retrospect it wasn’t one big life-changing event that set me off, it was more a confluence of many seemingly small things, all at once. “England” was the song that reminded me that I wasn’t the only person who felt lost and abandoned and miserable; it was the light at the end of my tunnel.
Ultimately, I think it’s healthy to keep in touch with both ends of the spectrum of emotions. It is what makes us feel human.
And with that, dear friends, I bid you adieu (for now).