The world doesn't need a new Dylan. Never has. It's not because Dylan's contribution to popular music is enormous, which it is. It's because Dylan's music is timeless, and therefore doesn't need to be duplicated or replaced.
Codgers like Neil Young can bitch and self-aggrandize all they want about how there's no new protest music, but the fact remains that we don't need any. We're all fucked, so let's all be pigs.
Mere minutes into last year's album, Alligator, The National's frontman Matt Berninger reminds us where we live.
"I'm living in the target's shoes/All I see is black and white and blue," he sings, continuing in the chorus, "Well whatever you do/You better wait for me/No, I wouldn't go out alone into America."
State of the union?
The National are part of a new breed of bleeding-heart, brooding rockers that could only find an audience among late-20-somethings who don't particularly care for Wilco, and who are too preoccupied looking for irony in their own lives to contribute to the world at large. These bands were too busy listening to Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits to become part of a protest-singer movement. Gothic, but not goth. Americana, but not wholly influenced by America.
"It all started out as a quest for finding something we fell in love with," explains Berninger on his band's inauspicious start. "Songs that are miserable, self-knowing and pathetic. And there are songs that are bombastic, cocksure and delusional fantasies of yourself. It's indulgent."
The five members of The National-Berninger, alongside dual sets of brothers, guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner with Bryan and Scott Devendorf in the rhythm section-originally met in Cincinnati but didn't form a band until they all moved to Brooklyn in the mid-'90s. Four critically acclaimed albums later, Berninger still isn't surprised by his band's lack of radio play or commercial success. He admits they often sabotage their chances by deliberately making their songs less poppy.
"I would never try to [write a song a certain way just] because it appeals to people," he says. "Everyone would know we were faking if [we] did."
Berninger's voice isn't the prototypical radio voice. It's basic and primal, the dirt underneath the asphalt. With a scream like Frank Black's that he uses selectively, he lets his seductive baritone do most of the minimum-wage work. He's a bit like Nick Cave without all the self-mythologizing, Robert Smith without all the self-affronting and Jarvis Cocker without all the self-indulgence.
His lyrics, however, could just be an emo kid's wet dream. He's reluctant to talk about the subtexts, but consider "Cardinal Song": "Never look her in the eyes/Never tell the truth/Never tell the one you want/That you do/ Save it for the deathbed."
Like a Band-aid ripped off fast.
Berninger's the star, the consummate-yet-reluctant frontman. But much like Richard Ashcroft-or, more recently, Thom Yorke-he's nothing without his friends. You suspect that as long as he's with The National, he'll consistently put out good records.
"We had no idea when we started out, and to be honest, we still don't. We still do certain things and I sing a certain way. Every time we start a song, we're in the dark. We're in the middle of the dark right now."
Sometimes we need assurance of our place in hell, because sometimes it feels like that's where we're heading. The National are the ones providing soothing music for the ride.
Like Dylan said, "I used to care, but things have changed."
The National plays with The Mobius Band and Baby Dayliner at The Casbah on Oct. 10. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. 619-232-HELL.