Image: Graham McIndoe

The National’s Strangest Lyrics: An Investigation

From their humble Ohio beginnings to sell-out shows around the globe, The National have spent the last two decades ascending to the top of the indie food-chain. They’re festival headliners, Grammy winners and the centre of media like the documentary Mistaken for Strangers and the podcast Coffee & Flowers. They’ve got a brand-new album coming out this week, entitled I am Easy to Find, which is also accompanied by a short film and features collaborations with the likes of Sharon Van Etten and former David Bowie bassit Gail Ann Dorsey.

People have a deep, intimate connection to the music of The National, and anyone’s who’s given them even so much as a cursory listen can understand why that’s so. There is, however, one niggling thing that even the most die-hard fan can’t deny about the band: Their lyrics are often absolute headscratchers. Whether it’s an overly-elaborate metaphor or something strangely blunt in an otherwise sentimental song, vocalist Matt Berninger has more than a few instances throughout the band’s discography that have made listeners do a double-take.

Here, we’re going to look at 15 of the most peculiar, ridiculous or just plain hilarious lyrics from The National songbook. Think 15 is too many? Consider this: This is the edited list.

“I am divine / And my arms are stronger than rivers.” – 
John’s Star, 2001

If you’re going to pick a body of water for a measuring stick of strength, surely you’d go for something huge like a waterfall or the ocean, right? Also, if all the strength is in your arms, perhaps get a couple of leg days in over at the dark side of the gym.

“As far as I can tell / I’m nothing like a princess.” – Thirsty, 2003

Not entirely true, Matt. You both have great fashion sense, and you’ve both visited the Sydney Opera House before. Not the case in 2003, though, so point to you.

“I don’t have a hawk in my heart/ No dumbass dove in my brain.” – Thirsty, 2003

So this is what it sounds like when doves cry. This came out a couple of years after Nelly Furtado’s ‘I’m Like a Bird’ and one can’t help but wonder if Matt was angling for an aviary analogy with a little more of the avant-garde to it.

“One time you were a good rabbit / To all the girls and all their lovely mothers.” – Trophy Wife, 2003

Again with the animal metaphors, huh? Or is he literally singing to a rabbit on this track? This one is so cryptic that not even the song’s Genius page has an answer – and Genius users normally have an answer for everything.

“It’s a common fetish for a common man / To ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand.” – Karen, 2005

Where to begin with this one? Even ignoring the assumption that there’s such a thing as a “common fetish,” what are the logistics behind ‘ballarina’ing on the coffee table? Least of all while, presumably, masturbating? How good a multitasker is this guy? How big is the table? He’s presumably on one leg, too, if he’s performing some kind of ballet. Did he take his pants off before he got up on the ta… hey, where are you going?

“Why did you listen to that man? / 
That’s man’s a balloon.” – Friend of Mine, 2005

You could view this as an expression meaning, “He’s full of hot air” or “He’s an airhead.” In your heart of hearts, though, don’t you just want to imagine Matt’s friend in question having a D&M with a literal balloon with a face drawn on it?

“I’m a perfect piece of ass.” – 
All the Wine, 2005

You’ve got to appreciate a man with a bit of self-confidence, don’t you? And hey, Matt Berninger’s slightly-dishevelled, lanky dad in a suit demeanour certainly has its share of fans who would agree with such a lyric.

“I’m a birthday candle in a circle of black girls.” – 
All the Wine, 2005

Lost me here, though. This is where the metaphor gets so deep that the specificity of it all makes no sense. Is it just a candle by itself? Is it on a cake? Does the cake have more than one candle? Why do the girls have to be black? Would it make a difference if he was a birthday candle in a circle of wh… hey, where are you going?

“God is on my side / Cause I’m the child bride.” – 
All the Wine, 2005

…all the wine, you say? Interpreting this song as one long, drunken ramble would definitely explain its lyrics.

“You swear you just saw a feathery woman / 
Carry a blindfolded man through the streets.” – 
Mistaken for Strangers, 2007

A lot of interpretations of these lyrics point to Greek mythology, which is definitely the kind of homework you want to be able to do in order to understand and enjoy a song. What’s the most interesting is that the rest of the song, at least by The National’s standards, makes some sort of literary sense. You can pick up what it’s talking about. Then, out of nowhere, boom. They hit you with the bird-lady metaphor.

“Sometimes you get up
 and bake a cake or something / 
Sometimes you stay in bed.” – 
Racing Like a Pro, 2007

Alright, making a cup of coffee or making toast, sure. But do you know how long it takes to bake a cake – especially a cake from scratch? That’s not a thing you casually do. Maybe that’s the point, but the way it’s sung seems to suggest that it’s a regular, throw-away thing to do – particularly with the “or something” attached to the end of it. Maybe in your world, Berninger.

“I was afraid I’d eat your brains.” – Conversation 16, 2010

You ever confess to your lover about how you might be a cannibal? Fellas know what I’m talking about. Also worth noting that this predated Santa Clarita Diet by several years – maybe The National could have written a song for that in-between one of their visits to Bob’s Burgers?

“Remember when you lost your shit
 / And drove into the garden?
 / You got out and said ‘I’m sorry’
 To the vines and no-one saw it.” – 
I Need My Girl, 2013

In an otherwise sweet and sentimental song on Trouble Will Find Me, this line is a genuine crack-up. If you’ve never apologised to an inanimate object for bumping into it, you’ve never lived. Bonus points if you’ve ever been carrying something, accidentally hit what you’re carrying on another surface and said “Ow” even though you were not at all physically injured.

“This is embarrassing / We’re pissing fits.” – 
Turtleneck, 2017

You ever find out you’ve been saying a phrase wrong your whole life? Something like “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less,” or “intensive purposes” instead of “intents and purposes”? That’s what this line in “Turtleneck” feels like. In case you weren’t aware, the saying is “pitching a fit.” A fit is, quite frankly, something you can’t piss. If it is, you should probably see your doctor about that.

“This one’s like your sister’s best friends. / 
In a bath, calling you to join them.” – 
I’ll Still Destroy You, 2017

It’s the setting of this one that makes it the weirdest. Having a crush on your sister’s friends, sure… but wouldn’t they all be in the pool? Or maybe the spa? A bath would be way too small to fit even more than two people. Even if his sister only had two friends, they wouldn’t invite him to join them if they were both already in the bath. There wouldn’t even be any roo… hey, where are you going?

The National’s ‘I am Easy to Find’ is out on May 17.

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