On the day The National released their newest album, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, I was in New Orleans to present at the University of New Orleans.
The day the album was released, I wore my New Order t-shirt released by The National along with New Order, related to one of the albums songs, “New Order T-Shirt.”
While standing in line on release day at Second Line Brewing, I turned around and the guy behind me had on the original New Order t-shirt mine was based on. He was a casual fan of The National but had seen them in concert.
A bit later, another guy in line spoke to me, surprised the band had been around since 1999 (noted on the back of the t-shirt).
I was introduced to The National sometime in the early to mid-2000s through R.E.M. I immediately fell in love with the group and was frantically catching up as anticipation built for the release of Boxer.
This has been a central body of music for me as I aged through my 40s into my 60s and has included seeing them in concert across the U.S.—Asheville, NC; Atlanta, GA; Pittsburg, PA; Red Rocks, CO.
At first, I recognized The National was a niche alternative band with a dedicated following but most people had never heard of them. The National t-shirt would attract the occasional fan, but mostly people had no idea.
My “I Am Easy to Find” t-shirt elicits laughs, but people are oblivious that it is a song/album title.
With First Two Pages of Frankenstein, however, The National has attained an oddly higher profile, in some ways because of their critical success, but mostly because the band has begun working with Taylor Swift, who is also featured on one song from the new album, “The Alcott.”
With that heightened fame, The National has also been branded “Sad Dad” music, and for me, this is somewhat funny and mostly missing the whole point of what the band does and why their work resonates.
The lyrics are primarily written by Matt Berninger, often with his wife, Carin Besser. Swift and other guest musicians contribute also with the music written by the rest of the band, often driven by the Dessner twins.
Here, recognizing that groups’ music is never singularly created, I want to focus on why Berninger’s lyrics aren’t actually “sad,” and why his lyrical development is much more important than that sort of reductive label.
First, let me acknowledge why I think many people do view The National’s music as sad.
Upon my first listen of the new album, I cried very hard during the final song, “Send for Me,” one of the best songs of the band’s career for me (a bit more on that below).
And on the second run through, “Once Upon a Poolside,” brought tears as well.
I suspect that song is more than a passing reference to their first album and the tenuous state of the band post-Covid as they struggled to produce this album.
The National does evoke deeply emotional responses; for me, crying is often about being emotionally overwhelmed, not sad.
When thinking about discussing why The National isn’t “sad” music, I immediately thought of how people misunderstand existentialism—specifically Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus”: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Berninger’s lyrics, I think, reflect the existential reality that our passions are our suffering, and we should never wish away our suffering because that would eliminate our passions as well.
Feeling deeply is being fully human, not sad. And what resonates with me about Berninger’s lyrics is their sincerity about feeling deeply in our human experience.
I have also seen people describe The National’s lyrics as too male-centric, which I also reject because Berninger is expressing human experiences as they, of course, exist in his body and mind (even when creating is not directly autobiographical).
Another element here that I find simplistic is that many of the lyrics are acknowledging clinical depression, anxiety, and introversion; it is discounting and careless to brush that aside as “sad.”
Berninger’s fascination with Tennessee Williams and self-medicating, along with acknowledging being on medication, are the core of what makes the lyrics sincere, not sad, and is wonderfully demonstrated here:
I get a little punchy with the vodka“The Day I Die”
Just like my great uncle Valentine Jester did
When he had to deal with those people like you
Who made no goddamn common sense
I’d rather walk all the way home right now
Than to spend one more second in this place
I’m exactly like you, Valentine, just
Come outside and leave with me
While I am not claiming some sort of traditional argument that Berninger’s lyrics are universal themes, I am arguing that his lyrics capture the frailty and tenderness of being fully human and that his growth as a lyricist includes a level of sincerity that fill a person’s heart.
So why did I cry upon first hearing “Send for Me”?
On one level, the sincerity for me is in the use of specific details, which lifts a song that could be cheesy or lazy to a sincere sweetness:
If you’re ever in a psychiatric greenhouse“Send for Me”
With slip-on shoes
Wipe a smile on the shatterproof windows
I’ll know what to do
If you’re ever in a gift shop dying inside
Filling up with tears
‘Cause you thought of somebody you loved
You haven’t seen in years
Often, Berninger’s narratives are like verbal collages and speakers are prone to crying themselves.
Another powerful aspect of the lyric writing is that Berninger has increased his use of rhetorical structures to give song cohesion and structure in the way that most pop music depends on heavy rhyme; the use of “if” clauses in “Send for Me” is a craft element found all throughout the album.
As a writer, poet, and teacher of writing, I appreciate how difficult it is to make writing sound natural, even easy, while also not being cliche, lazy, or writing beneath your topic.
The National, for me, isn’t a collection of Sad Dads, but a group of sincere people who have a high level of craft in the art they produce.
That fills my heart, and I feel lucky to have the songs surrounding me like the soundtrack we all imagine for ourselves.