I didn’t always feel that. Precisely because I didn’t always feel that, upon its release, I developed a feverish obsession with the band’s 2017 album Sleep Well Beast, which I have sung praises about to anyone who will listen. Its release coincided with my arrival at UC Berkeley, and I often claim it’s the best album ever made.
My freshman year of college was a whirlwind that inevitably came to a head in the fall semester of my sophomore year. But that year was a wake-up call — a very necessary one. I’m happier now, and when I say that, it’s not a lie to appease anyone; it’s a newly minted truth. Like Berninger croons in “Santa Clara,” I don’t worry the way I did before.
Back then, though, I worried all the time, and for as long as I’ve independently made my own music choices, I’ve turned to music as a grounding force. When I listened to Sleep Well Beast, the love I’ve had for The National since I was 16 became a relentless passion that advanced it to the top of my “Favorite Bands Ever” list. Sorry, Fleet Foxes.
It wasn’t until recently that I started reading what people have to say about Sleep Well Beast, including the band itself. To be frank, other interpretations couldn’t have mattered less to me at the beginning of my fixation. When I listened to the album — which I can still listen to on repeat all day, any day — my anxieties were ripped out of my body and put on lyrical display. If there were other meanings to be found, I didn’t want to hear them. All I wanted to hear was my inner anguish belted out over the course of 12 songs.
On one of the tracks I hold most dear, “Walk it Back,” Berninger bemoans “always thinking about useless things” and “checking out.” Berninger will fester in a cocktail of vices, he laments, “until everything is less insane.” I, 18 years old and festering in the unrelenting racing thoughts of an untreated mind, looked into this song as I would into a mirror.
“We said we’d only die of lonely secrets,” Berninger cries on “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” another favorite of mine. That’s what the album was: a musical compilation of my lonely secrets.
But Sleep Well Beast is a conversation. It is politically fraught, in part a product of the band’s frustration with the current federal government. This, I now know. Broken relationships are also at the forefront of nearly every song, metaphors for dissatisfaction with society. I am a diehard fan of The National, but I am also a comparative literature major, meaning I am rarely asked to consider authorial intent. When Berninger and his wife, Carin Besser, wrote these songs, perhaps they didn’t intend for them to resonate as the rhapsodic proclamations of maddening solitude they sounded like to me.
Still, that’s how I experienced Sleep Well Beast. The “you” was me confronting myself, chastising myself, recognizing myself and eventually making amends with myself.
Consider this lyric from “Empire Line”: “There’s a line that goes all the way from my childhood to you.” What I was dealing with when Sleep Well Beast came out wasn’t new, but it was dramatically exacerbated by the complete loss of structure I’d had back home. At the time, though, I didn’t know the name for what had always made my life difficult, and I wouldn’t know the name for it until a year after I started college. From volatile childhood to volatile adulthood, the line was consistent, though never stable.
“Empire Line” ends on the question, “Can’t you find a way?” Which is, pardon the inevitable tackiness of this statement, exactly what I did. Sleep Well Beast, while still a most-cherished companion, doesn’t reflect my psyche quite so vividly anymore, and lately, I’ve come to see myself in less self-destructive lyrics by The National. My all-time favorite song by the band is, surprisingly, not on Sleep Well Beast. Rather, it’s a song I’ve loved since I discovered it: “Don’t Swallow the Cap” from the 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me. In this song, Berninger affirms, “I’m not alone/ I’ll never be.”
There is also, of course, “Santa Clara.” A few months ago, I drove to Stanford to see The National at the Frost Amphitheater. I wasn’t expecting “Santa Clara” to make it on to the set list, and other fans (who were also at the very front, where Berninger briefly held on to me for balance during one of his many offstage excursions) looked as visibly surprised as I must’ve looked when that first “I don’t worry anymore” came out in Berninger’s baritone drawl. And because everything is less insane now, I smiled. I sang along.
I didn’t worry.
“Cutting Room Floor” columns are one-off, arts-oriented pieces written by Daily Cal staff members.