In August 2010 Time, a magazine, baited the liberal elite by featuring the novelist Jonathan Franzen on its cover, with a caption below it reading, simply, “Great American Novelist”. In the novel which precipitated the headline, Freedom, Franzen showed himself to be unafraid of engaging in music journalism in the middle of a serious novel about serious themes of nationhood. The same year, three American outfits released three landmark albums: LCD Soundsystem, with This Is Happening; The National, with High Violet; and Vampire Weekend, with Contra.
The hype around Franzen evinces the idea that the Great American Novel—a literary obsession that began with Gatsby and Babbitt, and grew to encompass the works of dos Passos, DeLillo and Foster Wallace, isn’t dead—and the search for the great American album is only just getting started.
We only recently learned that Bryan Devendorf, drummer of The National, was taught how to play his weapon of choice by Steven Earle from The Afghan Whigs. Previously, that information would have served little purpose. But listening to the The National’s latest album, Trouble Will Find Me, it sounds like the band are now taking their cues, however subtly, from various components of their Buckeye neighbours’ aesthetic.
I’m going to be daring and modern and suggest The National are a superior outfit to The Afghan Whigs. But both bands share a crepuscular outlook, and one that’s not lugubrious or creepy, but lush and ornate, and sinister only in the most baroque sense. This similarity comes through especially from the guitars—rich in overtones, tenor in pitch, and purring around and in between distinctive rhythms.
Devendorf’s drumming for The National is inimitable, propulsive and lumbering, like an unstoppable juggernaut. On their songs that could roll along for an eternity, like “Demons” or “Graceless”, the drums are the scaffolding from which the Dessner brothers’ endlessly innovative guitar-work hangs. On The Afghan Whigs’ masterpiece Gentlemen, Earle’s sticksmanship is remarkable: intricate but punishing on “Debonair”; loping and stuttering on “Fountain And Fairfax”. But again, the drums are the framework for the guitars: whatever the exact timbre of the song, Earle complements Greg Dulli and Rick McCollum’s gravelly rivers of nicotine-stained guitars—a pairing of fretworkers that’s a more disturbing forebear to that of the Dessner brothers, if you will.
Here in 213, LCD Soundsystem is dead, but The National and Vampire Weekend have returned with surefire contenders for the title of music’s counterpart to the mystical, long-foretold Great American Novel. American society, with all its inescapable ambition and inequality and excesses, needs an album that does it justice. I previously suggested Blur were music’s answer to Martin Amis; could either of these new albums be the art form’s equivalent of Franzen’s Freedom?
Trouble Will Find Me, like much of The National’s output, is about the looming responsibilities faced by the everyman. For Ezra Koenig on Modern Vampires Of The City, parenthood and reminiscence are still a little way off. Instead, what looms for him is his mortality. Clocks tick ominously on several songs; “There’s a headstone right in front of you / And everyone I know” on “Don’t Lie”. Koenig hinted at his fears on Contra, but here they are fully realised—not as ghoulish nightmares, but as fleshed-out novellas, with characters cut from the same, finite cloth.
The music behind him is characteristically charming and—now, more than ever before—rollicking. (Songs like “Unbelievers”, “Diane Young” and “Finger Back” would have felt out of place on their previous two albums.) But the lyrical concerns are far more universal, even as they come informed by Koenig’s own experiences. The album’s centrefold, “Hannah Hunt”, might be the first song to depict a relationship breakdown being precipitated by The New York Times. That kind of detail could grate—too redolent of a particular social stratum, perhaps—but the anguish in Koenig’s voice when the song ramps up around the three-minute mark, creeping into the red-zone and processed to resemble a crying infant, (“If I can’t trust you, then damn it Hannah / There’s no future, there’s no answer”, he wails) is comprehensible by all.
Elsewhere, as on “Ya Hey”, Koenig questions religion and its place in America: a topic of no little import from the time of the First Amendment onwards. There’s just the right number of nods to the present-day (the sly OutKast reference, the Chipmunk backing vocals) to keep it fresh. Koenig might be telling us the overriding themes of the Great American Novel ought not to be forgotten amidst the buzz of reality television, AutoTuned rap, and Twitter.
There’s a connection between the Aristotelian structure of Greek tragedies and the narrative arc of many purported Great American Novels. First comes the hero’s tragic flaw, hamartia, or the unlucky strike of fate, peripeteia. Then comes the protagonist’s basking in grief: pathos. And then, at last comes the realisation that this flaw can be used for the hero’s own twisted ends: anagnorisis. Sophocles’s Antigone takes several hours to complete this journey, wherein we find triumphalism in failure and one’s own shortcomings; in The National’s “Sorrow”, it is more succinctly put: “Under the withering white skies of / Humiliation / Tunnel vision lights my way”.
As with the Greeks, so too for the great literary accounts of men pursuing the American Dream. And so too for the flawed, hurt, wronged inhabitants of songs on Trouble Will Find Me and Modern Vampires Of The City. They might have white-collar jobs and be like “a white girl in a crowd of white girls / In the park” (as Berninger croons in “Pink Rabbits”); they might go to parties “full of punks and cannonballers”. But they remain attuned to their predecessors’ fate, doomed to be swept along in history’s inexorable tide—or, as the titular protagonist of Vampire Weekend’s “Hudson”, to be immortalised in the name of the place in which you died whilst having every shred of your identity obliterated from memory.
The forlorn, murky march that backs that song’s bleak tale recalls the muddy, musty scenes of Spielberg’s Lincoln. These two albums should, similarly, unite the nation that begat them.