Instead of working late at night, Berninger now wakes up before dawn, drinks tea, smokes weed and writes lyrics. On “I Am Easy to Find,” the band’s eighth album, he tried to move away from its customary mood, which he referred to as “that depressed, bitter, sludgy, angsty, drunk, tired thing.” His lyrics, which are sometimes darkly hilarious, still mull the ways in which relationships yield disappointment. “If you wanna be alone, come with me,” he sings in “Rylan,” a fan favorite.
While similar “depressed, bitter” predecessors, like Sparklehorse or Sun Kil Moon, never filled basketball arenas, the National has, oddly, become one of the biggest bands in rock.
Bryce Dessner said the R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe once gave the National a bit of weary counsel: A band, he said, either needs lots of hits, or none. “So we went with the none,” Bryce said with a smile.
Bryce writes modern classical music, has two degrees from Yale, and founded a festival for avant-garde music. The brothers share “an opposition to bombastic rock tropes,” Aaron said. “We prefer to play off each other in mirrored patterns and cross rhythms.” Reaching from Minimalist tradition, their guitar riffs coil, claw and recur, rarely offering catharsis or resolution. The songs end where they began. If you were writing a business plan for a big rock band, you wouldn’t base it on mirrored patterns and cross rhythms.
“You go into the Gap,” Berninger said with a laugh, “and you’ll hear a bunch of songs that sound bright and connect right away. You can hear the melody in the dressing room. And then all of a sudden, you’ll hear this mumbled, murky sound — and I’m like, ‘Oh. That’s one of our songs.’