Saturday, September 30, 2023

Song Highlight: The National - Smoke Detector

“Music for people on the verge of a midlife crisis” is how I would describe the music of The National, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Cincinnati rock band. They are not a band portraying the wistfulness of youth and young romances, rather they plumb the depths of adult life from unfulfilling jobs to stagnant relationships. They write songs about the banalities of a normal life, something that not many bands succeed in writing compelling songs about, or even try to do, for that matter. 

One of the most striking things about the band is vocalist Matt Berninger’s deep baritone voice and his obtuse lyrics, brimming with specific details. Even if these lyrics are sometimes hard to interpret, the sentiment of the songs always shines through. I first discovered the band in 2007 shortly after the release of the album Boxer, which received a lot of critical acclaim and was the start of the band skyrocketing to indie rock stardom. It also largely marked the end of Berninger’s more unhinged vocal performances, where his baritone would meld into frantic shouting, as demonstrated in songs like “Abel” and “Available”. It was actually these songs that forced me to take a stronger look at the band, and helped me realize they were more interesting than another somber indie rock band.

The band’s last few studio albums have been beautiful, lushly arranged musical affairs that I have thoroughly enjoyed, though they have lacked some of the unrestrained energy of their earlier efforts. The National recently released their 2nd album of 2023, called Laugh Track, and the very last track is a searing 8 minute post-rock guitar epic called “Smoke Detector”. The song feels like a return to The National’s uninhibited rock songs, screaming guitars and militant drumming. While Berninger never starts yelling in the song, much of his vocal performance is an urgent rambling of images, the sort that I can only imagine him really letting loose in live performances.

Berninger had a bout of writer's block during the worst of the COVID pandemic, which seems to be part of the focus of the song:

“Sit in the backyard in my pharmacy slippers

At least I'm not on the roof anymore

In a year or so, I hope nobody remembers

This, this run of episodes of my time on the floor

Need to recharge, light from the stars

Won't really reach anything, will it?”

He is glad that in this depressive episode he is no longer suicidal, and is hoping that no one remembers this low point in his life. With luck and good fortune, Berninger has found his way out of those dark times.

It is exciting to see that The National still has it in them to write the sort of songs that first drew me to them. I do not expect to see a return to this style for future releases, but maybe it is not out of the question.

Buy The National's music here.

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