You will have noticed, kind reader, that ambivalence (and the need to manage ambivalence lest it be contrived as a lack of commitment), is on my mind a lot at the moment. Ambivalence, as a tone, has been in quiet attendance for some time now, nesting itself alongside all sorts of hallowed and loved people and practices. The soundtrack to these jellyback wobbles of certainty have been The National’s Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet albums. I can’t get enough of The National, whenever I can’t think what to listen to I am turning, again and again, to The National.
I adore all these albums, some more than others but all the songs are astonishing. The craft; the instrumentation (especially the drumming); the disconcerting anti-choruses; the poetic half mumbles; the lyrical fragility; the clarity of production; the modesty of their iconography; and especially Matt Berninger’s voice: all of these have at some point captured my imagination and driven my love to new heights.
The National make music for middle aged men living lives of unstated ambivalence, they are the sound of contemporary masculinity in crisis. Not crisis as in big, dramatic spectacles of testing circumstances where heroism will eventually triumph over the obstacles placed before us. But crisis like a pair of underwear that no longer supports the equipment, such a looseness in definition and shape that there’s ambiguity about what being a man is supposed to look and feel like.
I worry about this, in a fairly predictable middle aged bloke manner, and weave the nuanced mutterings of The National into my discourses of (self) concern and worry. The tones of ambiguity and ambivalence have become comforts as I manage the commonplaces of suburban bourgeois life.
The National speak to my sense that the value of hope is not in the reaching of goals, or the achievements of professionalism, or the winning of prizes and the display of trophies for the accrual of ego benefits. The National reassure me that the value of hope is in the recognition that most of our core securities are tenuous, that our lives (for all their appearance of comfort and control) are shaky compositions, and that each day requires us to grab onto something and hold tight.