Love being a losing game was a big theme back in 2003, the year of Beck’s Sea Change and its equal partner in romantic shame, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. So why did one become instantly lauded as one of the greatest albums of all time (Sea Change) and one fall through the cracks (Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers)? The simple answer would be name recognition, with Beck holding the obvious advantage over a Brooklyn by way of Cincinnati band’s sophomore effort. Yet Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers is the better album.
Both albums boast some of the most gorgeous production of any album in the aught’s. Beck’s is more grand in scope, with lush arrangements dominating the entire affair; spaced out acoustic guitars, twinkling electric guitars, shuffled drumming, all allowing his haunted voice to take the fold. The National take a much more concentrated approach, putting their production eggs in separate baskets.
The National formed in 1999, in the echoes of the dot com boom in bustling New York City, though they had met back in Cincinnati, “home to Pete Rose and the first Filet-O-Fish” drummer Bryan Devendorf would affectionately remark. when they released their self-titled debut album two years later, they had hardly played a gig. The National did not fall on deaf ears however, earning praise from critics like Jason MacNeil of No Depression stating “From the opening notes of “Beautiful Head”, the delicate line between polished roots-oriented pop and alt-country has rarely been walked so deliberately with the payoff so favorable.” Already the quintet which featured two sets of twins, was becoming more than just a novelty.
Certainly their subject matter wasn’t. Matt Berninger was a crepuscular narrator, a character out of Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours, perpetually falling in and out of love, perpetually the victim of the sadness of broken-down bar life. “Do not tell me I’ve changed” he sighs on one number “you’re just raising your standards, do not give me away”. Berninger’s oblique poetry is often a victim of intelligent design, a sad acknowledgement that he is responsible for things that he can not understand. For a follow up album, the question became how does an emotionally mature band improve? The answers on Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers are simple; production and focus.
The National was an album of simple arrangements, bar bruised rock with emotion harvested from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and poetry borrowed from the likes of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. Then came Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers:
The opener “Cardinal Song” is a gorgeous mind bender, a fraternal twin to the Sea Change sound that launched Beck into the critical stratosphere. Here, Berninger’s vocals are so up front in the recording that its not only the mic that he’s cradling, but the listener’s ear. His voice hushed, half whispering, half admonishing “Never look them in the eye, never tell the truth.” It’s an emotional tour-de-force and a lesson for humanity. “Jesus Christ you have confused me, Cornered, wasted, blessed, and used me” Berninger croons amidst wise words “Never tell the one you love that you do, Save it for the deathbed, And do everything she’d never do.”
“Slipping Husband” takes an immediate turn to straightforward rock, “You could have been a legend but you became a father, that’s what you are today, that’s what you are today.” Berninger converses, a narrator speaking to himself in the third person. It’s a dark take on a dream deferred but a convincing one, equating thinking of what could have been as “acting like a kid.”
“90-Mile Water Wall” is a clear highlight, and it drips like a classic western, a “Lonesome Dove” in winter’s twilight. “ Well I know that you know that you’ve become the target of this hand, with never even asking.” It’s a great table setter for some of Berninger’s greatest lyrics, the action constantly overwhelming the ability to react. The arrangement truly shines here, bolstered by some great violin and guitar interplay, upfront and utterly transparent, a Cormac McCarthy novel in song form.
“It Never Happened” is a dark brood on the end of youth “We look younger than we feel, and older than we are” declares the narrator, pleading “Lover put me in your beautiful bed, and cover me" where the song dovetails into a swirling instrumental from Dark Side of the Moon. because "nothing ever happens to the beautiful.”
“Murder Me Rachel” is where things start to get more caustic. Wiry guitars scream and hum reflecting the hurt of the narrator who’s glimpsed his old flame with a new “pretty boy”. "Say goodbye to pretty boy" he warns, the admittance that he “loved her to ribbons” is a haunting image, an instant connection between the pretty little garnishments and his love being cut and slashed into little pieces. It’s purposeful that pretty boy could be both the narrator and the faceless competitor and it’s the fiercest song on the album.
“Thirsty” is a natural progression from the anger that burst to the surface in “Murder Me Rachel” it’s intensely guarded, referencing fairytales and using alliterative imagery. It’s fitting that the narrator feels weak referencing his “girly arms” and can neither “have a hawk in [his] heart” nor a “dumbass dove in [his] brain”. The shock of the development in “Murder Me Rachel” has left him aimless and defenseless.
“Available” is lyrically two-fold, both a diatribe against a faceless one-night stand, and against his former lover. “Did you dress me down and liquor me up, To make me last for the one minute, When the red comes over you, Like it does when you’re filled with love, Or whatever you call it.” That poor soul that dared take this brooding man home for what was supposed to be a simple night of fun.
The next two songs, “Sugar Wife” and “Trophy Wife” eschew the traditional gender roles and reverse them. “Sugar Wife” is a plea for a wife to make him a man, an ironic twist on the usual role of a Sugar Daddy. He wants to become a dad, pushing for a semblance of meaning. The arrangement here too reflects a lighter mood with some warm harmonies and golden guitar.
“Trophy Wife” is another push at breaking from the sadness and anger that enveloped the narrator, but grounded in the fact that “No one wants to be, no no ones lover, No matter what they say, Lovers know they are the ones, Who one day have to go.”
“Fashion Coat” is a song of juxtapositions, a man who “floats around [his] city” but remains grounded by the fact that “everywhere [he is] is just another place without you in it” is filled with desire to do everything to his lover but is fearful of her falling in love, or out of it. The chorus “I die fast in this city, Outside I die slow” is a reflection of being around the woman he loves, versus when he’s without her.
“Patterns of Fairytales” brings us back to the production of “Cardinal Song”, with a swirling organ and gorgeous guitar work amidst wistful lyrics about a woman gone. The narrator resolves to lie in bed and listen to the music he once made for his love, the memories they once had “And I’m lining up the names, On the mixes I made before you, And I’m turning into fairytales, With glitter and some glue, Everything we ever planned to ever do.”
“Lucky You” ends the album, a slow build of a song with relatively bare production, shimmering acoustic, glimmering electric guitars with a wicked twist on declaring love to someone. “You own me, There’s nothing you can do, You own me, Lucky you.”
More than anything, Sad Songs For Dirty Albums is a reflection on relationships, on the highs and the lows, the being in love and being out of love, but it’s not just your typical breakup album. Bereninger’s narrators reflect and commiserate, juxtaposing the dark reality with the glowing hope, the burn of anger, the shadow of sadness. More than any other, it’s a distinctly human album. The sonic landscape is a city at night, with those that linger long after others have gone to sleep, who meander, wonder, try to shake the reality from their lives. These are the people who brood, drink to take the edge off, youth at its death knell as the depression of adulthood takes over.While Bruce Springsteen was best at reflecting on the burning hope of teenage youth, and the results of falling short of those goals, The National are experts in the agony of adulthood, of trying to mature where hope has deserted you.
Notes On: Production
As a listener, I find texture to be a highly undervalued commodity when it comes to an album, even when they prove to be instrumental in deciphering what makes a good album. Blonde on Blonde had its mercurial electric through a transistor sound, Abbey Road was almost symphonic in its production values, pushing the songs to greater effect with their grandiosity, Dark Side of the Moon had a polish that reverberated off the moon and back. The best albums are linked not only by great songwriting, but cohesive production. On Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, the production, much like the lyrical content, is largely organic, shading compositions with fantastical elements when the mood calls for it, “Cardinal Song” would be much less effective without the atmosphere thats laid along side it. That’s what makes it such a dynamic record, everything is in its right place.