Friday, December 18, 2009

#16. 'You just saw a feathery woman carry a blindfolded man through the trees'

The National "Mistaken for Strangers"

I associate the term 'grower' more with albums than with single tracks therein. It's not that individual songs can't make the same sort of journey that their parent albums do, just that songs, singles especially, are entities I associate more with immediateness than a slow burn. You could argue taht any sort of 'grower' album would have to be made up of songs that are just as easily described by that term, and you'd probably be right to some extent, but I see it as moreof a whole package deal than each individual piece growing on its own. There may be songs that are slow to reveal themselves, but it usually comes in the context of the album as opposed to in isolation. That said, if there was one single that pretty much puts lie to all that bullshit I was just spouting it's gotta be "Mistaken for Strangers."

I can't quite figure out how it snuck up on me, or even why tit would have had to, but I know during my initial passes through Boxer it definitely didn't strike me as a stand out the way that he likes of "Fake Empire" and "Racing Like a Pro" did. It was a good song for sure, but it wasn't something I'd have considered as one of the best on the album by any stretch. Yet with each subsequent listen it got closer to the top of the heap and eventually started to become sort of the watershed National song. It's such a perfect encapsulation of the band, both sonically and lyrically that I find it hard to believe that I took so long to fully warm up to it. I think it might have to so with my general dismissal of lyrics upon the first few listens, because as great as the song sounds most of its strength comes from Berringer's lyrics.

It also could have something to do with it mirroring certain fears that were becoming more and more prominent as I got closer to graduating. The whole song is about the uncertainty of adulthood, the way that young adults try on so many different identities that they end up unrecognizable to people who once cared for them ('mistaken for strangers by your own friends'), how idealists will eventually sell out their beliefs for security ('showered and blue-blazered/fill yourself with quarters,' 'make up something to believe in your heart of hearts so you have something to wear on your sleeve of sleeves'), how as the exciting life you could lead before is obviated by responsibility ('you wouldn't want an angel watching over you/surprise, surprise they wouldn't want to watch') and most importantly how inevitable it all is. That sort of thing doesn't so much frighten me as it does just make me uneasy. The fact is that on some level that's already happened to me, I've already done my uninnocent, elegant fall into complacency before I've even had a chance to sell out my core beliefs. The lyrics started to speak to me more and more as I got closer to that point in my life where I knew I'd have to start making decisions that could lead me to a point where not even my friends would recognize me. It's prescient, and unsettling, but the way Berringer renders it in its lyrics is so perfectly evocative and beautiful in its way that it probably would have stuck with me even if it didn't strike that chord of truth.

But there's one image that stands out amidst the rest, and that's Berringer's assertion of 'You swear you just saw a feathery woman carry a blindfolded man through the trees.' On its own its a fascinating image, the sort of surrealist tableau that would be more at home in a less reality-focused song, but in context it takes on a much more unsettling meaning, to me at least. Here we have a song about the transition between boy and man, between college kid with no firm life goals and adult with nothing but responsibility, with that transition painted as the most boring and inevitable change you could imaging; the sort of thing that the angels who supposedly watch over you at all times can't be bothered to tune in for. Then this image comes along of a helpless person being carted into the unknown by a supernatural force. In other words, you've just witnessed this transition being made, and not in a peaceful way. and the reason that the angels don't want to watch isn't because it's boring necessarily, but because dragging people who aren't ready into the unknown is a necessary act of cruelty that they have to carry out. It's the most frightening lyric of the decade as far as I'm concerned (OK, maybe second to one I have yet to write up) mostly because it always seems so innocent and inconsequential until I thought about it too much and it kinda hit me just how beautiful yet haunting that simple image could be. Berringer gets a lot of acclaim for his lyrics, and it's all well deserved, but a lot of people don't get to the heart of why his lyrics work so well; it's that instead of the visceral he hedges towards the evocative, and the meanings you project onto them are always more vivid than whatever he could describe.

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