Words by Jon Doyle
When Adam asked if I would be willing to write a piece about a song I love, my immediate reaction was panic. Without treading the old clichés expressed by all music fans (I’m sure everyone reading this knows what I mean here), it is incredibly difficult to choose a single song to write about, even if the post makes no ‘Favourite Song Ever’ claims. I plumped for a new song, undoubtedly my favourite (so far) this year, by a familiar band, an act I would probably say are my favourite should I be forced to decide by vicious threats of torture.
(I should add a disclaimer here: all of these thoughts and ideas are my own and could well be/probably are worlds away from what the band intend the song to mean. I guess that’s what makes music so interesting).
The music industry is a strange system. Hard work and solid song writing is not necessarily rewarded, and often when it is the ‘reward’ is money to make a new album that appeals to a wider range of people. Therefore acts find themselves drifting from their core values into overproduced superficial sing-a-longs just to appease the people who are helping them make a living. This is one of the reasons why the hipster predilection to ‘go off’ their favourite band once they ‘make it’ is not always as irrational as it sounds. The National, however, are different, and for me ‘Graceless’ sums up what makes the band so special – their ability to achieve (relative) success and exposure without compromising on their own artistic values. Any album since Alligator could have seen them stray toward the commercial end of the musical continuum, but instead they somehow managed to ignore the notion entirely and just produce high quality songs that seem designed for no purpose other than being as good as humanly possible.
‘Graceless’ is my current favourite song from the latest album, Trouble Will Find Me, although this is subject to change. It is great to see the band with a sense of urgent desperation, bringing to mind something from Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. It may not be quite as ‘mean’ (their words, not mine) as ‘Available’ or ‘Slipping Husband,’ but it is equally reckless and frantic. Any song that has potential for shouting and yelping when performed live usually turns out to be a favourite amongst the fans.
The real reason I chose a song by The National is that they seems to invite critical analysis, even by decidedly amateur observers such as myself. Matt Berninger is a master of vague lyricism and polychotomous meanings, conjuring imagery that has metaphorical value at a number of levels. It’s true that the allegoric meaning of any song is essentially only limited by the willingness of the listener to descend beyond intended meaning, but Berninger seems to intend for you to go beyond intended meaning, if that is even possible.
On the surface, ‘Graceless’ is a song about the narrator, who I’ll label as Person A, who suffers from some sort of psychic pain that makes existing, i.e. being a functioning human being, difficult. Person A mentions a ‘powder to erase this’ which can be taken literally as some sort of antidepressant medication which could ease the chronic lack of self-worth or confidence et cetera. However, as many books and films tell us, medication that numbs the psychic pain also numbs whatever makes us ‘us’. Person A says ‘I took the medicine when I went missing’ and appeals to another, “just let me hear your voice, just let me listen’. Person A sees this second individual, Person B, as a way to relocate their capital-S Self or maybe anchor it before it is completely lost. The rest of the song could be interpreted as Person A telling Person B to save them by finding their best parts, with or without the medication (‘Put the flowers you find in a vase // Don’t let them die on the vine, it’s a waste’).
My first few listens registered the above story, a story I can only understand by what others have written down or committed to film, a story, while interesting and affecting and thought-provoking, cannot fully resonate with me. To date, I haven’t been on medication. A Person B, who is almost always an attractive male/female in Hollywood versions, has yet to appear in my life. My relationship with the song entered a new phase, I had to somehow relate it to my own experiences, make it relevant and personal as if written just for me. It started to grow on me the more I thought about it, going from a fun song with interesting lyrics to something that demanded another play with words you want to tattoo on your body.
‘I’m trying, but I’ve gone / Through the glass again / Just come and find me’
These lines kept jumping out at me. They meant something, rang true on some subconscious level. I wrote them down and thought about them. The song began to morph into something bigger. Person A began to become me. The glass is the means of isolation, the bell jar, preventing any sort of connection with another (Person B). This can be taken further (and here is where I think I deviate completely from the intended meaning). Glass could represent a computer screen, the biggest human achievement in linking up the world that is paradoxically one of the most effective means of isolating individual possible. People can share whatever they want of their lives and invariably leave out the mundane or downright awful parts, creating an idealised, almost fictional life story for others to see. It’s easy to represent your life as fun and varied and worthwhile by cherry-picking the best bits or ironically calling out the bad parts in a way that shows you are a well balanced and generally cool and therefore able to comment on undesirable things in a nudge-nudge wink-wink way. This gives a new meaning to ‘put the flowers you find in a vase’.
The horrible sting to all this of course is that you know that it is an illusion on your part but can never be sure if it is an illusion for everyone else. Maybe you are the only person who has to filter a whole load of shit out of your day before finding a suitable photo to post? Maybe other people really do live a life of constant travel and excessive friendships and spectral sunsets? Maybe these people have to find time to post rather than finding things to post in a stretch of tedious time?
Anyway, back to the song. Person A is ‘through the glass’ but talking to Person B, asking them to ‘come and find me’. Is Person A locked away in a darkened room fervently observing all the fun they should be having? Maybe Person B isn’t a person at all. Maybe Person B is in fact People X. Maybe Person A is alone and our contemporary obsession with social media is driving this home with deadly accuracy. The view of what life should be like is dictated by what others post, addling his/her stale and putrefying brain (‘All of my thoughts of you / Bullets through rotten fruit / Come apart at the seams / Now I know what dying means’). The ‘come and find me’ is a plea to People X to remember their forgotten members, those that are not living their lives the way everyone says they should be, those that can no longer pretend that selective posts online make them a functioning human being (I am not my rosy self / Left my roses on my shelf).
While I descend the levels of meaning to places that would not be familiar even to Berninger himself, the idea of isolation continues to appear, a thread linking them all. Isolation, in its many forms, is something pretty much everybody can relate to in some way or another, meaning that while Berninger may be singing about one particular idea, any listener could find their own Self in the lyrics and relate to it as if it was written just for them. Surely the triumphant hallmark of any truly great song?
Jon Doyle is one of the gentlemen behind the absolutely superb music blog Wake the Deaf. If you like mixes, eclectic tastes and consistently fantastic writing (you like all those things, I’m sure of it), then Wake the Deaf is a blog you need to visit daily.