Tangled Up in The National

Frontman Matt Berninger on fatherhood and why lyrics are like Legos.

The National (Photo by Graham MacIndoe)

Matt Berninger is happy to steal from the greats.

The National’s lead singer plays modest when asked about his reading habits. He credits his wife’s book collection with introducing him to writers like Cynthia Ozick, Charles D’Ambrosio, and George Saunders — all authors who have found their way into The National’s songs over the years.

“I cherry-pick little bits,” Berninger says. “I just churn it up and re-purpose it.”

More inclined to read Lolita for a fourth time or revisit Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays than browse a bookstore’s new-releases section, Berninger insists it’s actually other songwriters he most often cribs from, citing Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen as frequent targets.

“I was obsessed with Tom Waits — The Early Years: Vol. 2 in college, and when I listen to that record now, it’s almost like over the years I’ve somehow used every single line on that record in a National song or somewhere else,” he says. “I’ll usually find out later, as I’m reading or listening to something. It’s like, ‘Oh, look at that! I stole that!’ I just don’t stop myself.”

Beyond the occasional reference to writers and musicians, the substance of The National’s latest record, Sleep Well Beast, is primarily based in the band’s familiar themes of spiritual stalemates and emotional quagmires.

Following a four-year absence, the album finds the band’s five members returning to the existential quandaries and crescendo rock that have served as their signature since the release of their self-titled debut in 2001. For Sleep Well Beast, Berninger turned to his wife, Carin Besser, to help produce the lyrics.

The result is songs that explore the fragile nature of marriage and push against a rigid definition of a concept that Berninger finds at odds with human nature. On the anthem “Day I Die,” he insists, “I don’t need you / I don’t need you.” But the chorus betrays Berninger’s true feelings, desperately asking, “The day I die / Where will we be?”

“I feel like for so many people marriage becomes this trap,” he explains, “because they don’t realize that your marriage can shift and evolve. You have to constantly rethink and rewire your marriage and put it back together in different ways because you’re changing and your partner’s changing — and then you have kids.”

Fatherhood is another theme on the new record. It’s hardly a surprise because all five members of The National — twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner, brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf, and Berninger himself — now have children.

“Having a kid, for me was different,” Berninger says. “Something clicked. Now I know what the afterlife is. I know what heaven is. I know what God is now. I get it. That idea, that that’s your afterlife is something I extend to everything now. You open the door for somebody and let them go first. That changes their chemistry and your chemistry a little bit, and that leaves a little bit of heaven around. Even that little tiny thing is your afterlife. You’ve affected the world in a good way.”

This way of thinking has long been reflected in The National’s music, which dwells on human nature by extrapolating personal angst as a universal condition. Explaining his process for crafting lyrics, Berninger says that, these days, he works with music sketches, which can take the form of a developed piece, or a simple piano line or loop.

“For a long, long time, I’m just mumbling and finding melodies and singing along,” he says. “I’ll let it all tumble out all over the table like Legos, and then I start to make little shapes out of it. I’ll just swim in the music and pile up lots of free-associated nonsense on a track and then come back and start to craft it and see what’s going on there.”

In the case of “Turtleneck” — which finds Berninger unusually raw and unhinged — the shape is dread as he warns, “Keep the weed next to the bed / Light the water, check for lead.” Jagged, menacing guitars and unshakable percussion form a bed upon which Berninger wails over the bleak landscape he sees before him.

“In the end,” Berninger says, “our songs are always about the same thing. They just marinate in an attempt to work out some sort of tangle. Sometimes they do, but it’s not like, ‘Oh here it is! This is how I should live my life.’ None of our songs will ever provide those solutions. It’s almost like an untangling. That’s all it is.”

The National, Saturday, Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. ($55), and Sunday, Oct. 15 at 3:30 p.m. ($49.50), at The Greek Theater; ticketmaster.com.

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