A year ago my long term relationship imploded. Emotionally devastated, but mostly just exhausted, I followed a semi-romantic impulse that had me quit a job I loved, move to a new city and return to school after a long hiatus. It was a rough transition; introverted and averse to change, suddenly I lived in a dumpy little house with two strangers. Those first few days were hell: I spent one day in bed, cocooned, too afraid to leave my room, and the other walking dumbfounded and lost around campus and around town. I didn’t eat or drink anything – I felt like shit. Two weeks later, depressed, lonely and noticeably skinnier, I found myself on a pool deck getting ready for a swim when a beautiful girl crossed my path. I thought, right at that moment, this girl would be the love of my life. Ashley was a lifeguard at the university pool, and was an absolute indie goddess, with stunning natural features and wild brunette dreadlocks to boot. It took two weeks and a lot of swimming to finally get up the nerve to talk to her, and after a lengthy conversation about our shared love of Beach House (and a critique of the pool lighting – we’re both lifeguards) she exclaimed excitedly her favorite band was The National. I had to groan internally a bit, surely this indie goddess would be better suited to like a band a little more niche? A tad more interesting?
I was dead wrong. Listening to Trouble Will Find Me, The National’s 2013 release, and looking back on the past year, I realize now The National are the perfect band for someone like Ashley to love. Their music is soft, intimate, reflective and melancholic; not the sort of melancholy that wallows in sadness, but rather the sort of melancholy that is beautiful: a yearning for a lost moment, the soft touch of a former lover, or the smile of an estranged friend. The National make music for the gentle soul – for those whose prize possessions are their collection of teas and a notebook full of scribbled poetry.
For fans of The National, Trouble Will Find Me must seem like the pinnacle of their sound. The thoughtful lyrics are delivered in the signature baritone of lead singer Matt Berninger, while the drums drive the piano chords and light guitar rhythms and melodies simply and beautifully. Opening track “I Should Live in Salt” is a perfect example of The National’s sensibilities – the song starts with a gentle acoustic strumming pattern with Berninger abandoning his usual low baritone for a more pleading tone, while singing over and over again “you should know me better than that”. Piano and sublime drumming (the drumming throughout ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is perfect) kicks off the chorus that overwhelms with emotion. “I Should Live in Salt” is a song about disconnect, and guilt over being unfamiliar with what should be intimate. Music in its purest form has always been about conveying emotions, and this song is a gut-punch of emotion, it’s simple and thus pure, encapsulating The National at their best.
As it turned out Ashley never ended up being the love of my life, but she became an important friend. She was a bright spot in a very dark year. I regret she had to get to know me at a time that was so tumultuous and crazy, but I feel like in the end Ashley knew and understood completely. For me music has always been about memories. How a song listened to one happy summer can, years later, bring back that exact time and place. The National remind me of Ashley, and however minor she thought it was, when I listen to them I remember the pub crawls and hangouts in tea shops and food joints; I remember how she showed me all the coolest places in town and how she listened to me as I worked out my emotions from being dumped. I also think about how miserable I would have been without her friendship. Music aside, and just for the memories alone, listening to The National is a beautiful experience.