The National and Verdi – they go together like peanut butter & jelly. Don’t believe me? I wouldn’t have either, until I went to back to back concerts over the weekend.
The weekend began with the glowing orbs of red, pink and gold sounds emanating from The National’s guitars that open the song “I Should Live in Salt.” Full of sentimentality, and bordering on obsession, the band drove home the message of what it means to find love, to lose it, to have it elude you. Some of the most peanut butter lyrics:
“I should live in salt for leaving you behind”
“I don’t need any help to be breakable, believe me…
I won’t need any help to be lonely when you leave me” (from Slipped)
“Everything I love is on the table/ Everything I love is out to sea” (from Don’t Swallow the Cap)
“I’ve been dragging around from the end of your coat for two weeks/ You keep changing your fancy, fancy mind every time I decide to let go” (from Brainy)
“Didn’t want to be your ghost, didn’t want to be anyone’s ghost/ But I don’t want anybody else” (from Anyone’s Ghost)
The band has clearly cornered the market on heartbreaking & obsessive lyrics. And they would be a good band even if Matt Berninger just stood up on a stage and read all these lyrics, but what makes them truly great is the fact that behind the lyrics are some of the most haunting melodies and orchestrations in modern (post)rock music.
The syncopated melody & instrumental (piano/guitar) parts in “Slipped” cause the song to trickle down a mossy stream, running over rocks and around fallen trees, the artifacts of a relationship’s end. “Brainy” is a long drive through a city tunnel – under panels of florescent light, passing expressionless drivers in the fast lane. “Don’t Swallow the Cap” sounds vast – spreading through patches of fog – planes that turn from light blue to pale yellow and back to blue.
Perhaps the most shoegazey of the bunch (not in a My Bloody Valentine way, but more in a literal way) is “Anyone’s Ghost”, which has you night-stalking your ex. Creeping around Brooklyn Heights to see that they were lying to you about being sick – and it’s not like you want to be that creeper who is waiting around for them to call you, but you don’t want to be with anyone else. The heart wants what it wants. We’ve all been there.
The band drew on past favorites, of which there are many, considering they’ve released six albums over the past decade. “About Today” from their Cherry Tree EP of 2004 had Berninger whispering to a silent audience. “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” became an acoustic sing-along, and was surprisingly intimate given the number of people in the crowd (5,700 people). The virtuosity of the musicians is underscored by their restraint and cohesion. Emotionally exhausted (and completely satiated), I drove home in silence, allowing only the echoes of the night to ring in my ears.
The next morning (actually it was around noon), I woke up ready to take on Verdi, in the form of the beloved opera, Aida. I was pretty hesitant to go, actually, because I didn’t want to tarnish the amazing experience I’d had the previous night — you know like when you’re eating a bag of peanut M&Ms and you eat a really good one — I usually stop there, because sometimes you get a bad one and it ruins the whole thing. Especially when you unknowingly save the bad one for last. Anyway, I was driving down to the Hollywood Bowl, listening to The Old Man and the Sea, getting ready for Verdi. Little did I know, in a few hours, I would be crying like a baby.
Perhaps it was Dudamel’s presence, but the LA Phil really redeemed themselves for me with this performance. I’ve seriously never heard a better sounding orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. I was happy to just leave it at that – a wonderful orchestral performance, but then the singing started. I started noticing familiar themes. A woman torn between her love for a man and the freedom of her country. A leader willing to sacrifice her power, her country, and her existence for love (unrequited love, at that!). A man willing to sacrifice the safety of his entire army to be with the woman he loves. Here are some of my favorites (translated from Italian):
To perish! so pure and lovely!/ To die, thine own self dooming,/ In all thy beauty blooming,/ Fade thus forever!/ Thou whom the heav’n only for love created/ But to destroy thee was my love then fated!/ Ah no! those eyes/ So dear I prize/ For death are too lovely!
Life is; of all pleasure/ From henceforward divested./ Without hope’s priceless treasure/ ‘Tis better far to die!
Pity these tears hopelessly shed,/ Love! mystic power, mystic and dread,/ Break, break my weak heart, let me now die!
All this heartbreak, love, obsession has lead me to believe that we’re all in this together. We’re all feeling the same feelings, just about different people and at different times. In terms of passion and obsession, it seems like these two musical experiences could not have been better curated. From Egyptian princesses to awkward Brooklynites to everyone in between, there’s a place for our un-reciprocated and overbearing emotions. That place is music.