Too Good To Fail
There are bands that I like, bands that I care about, and bands like the National that I like but just can’t care about no matter how hard I try.
In 2019 A.D. few albums have been more hotly anticipated than the National's eighth studio effort I Am Easy to Find, and the venerable Ohio institution has seen its release result in a level of praise that, while high, is also completely expected. They are, after all, a band that has arguably helped to set the bar over the past decade or so for a specific brand of American indie rock with their masterful dynamics, unpredictable musical flourishes, and Matt Berninger's self-mollifying warm growl of a vocal presence. The indie mainstays have created a run of albums that are cohesive statements for the band, and each of them can also be appreciated as a temperature reading of a male population recognizing its own privilege through a tumultuous time in gender politics. For any band, either of these things would be great achievements, and that is no less so for the National.
So…why don't I care about them like I used to?
I like good music. These four words constitute what is probably the most elementary and yet profound sentence I have ever written for this site. I like music that takes away the chills when I am shivering, and music that kicks up my heart rate during a brilliant transition from pre-chorus to chorus. I enjoy being cradled by soft hands, and being jolted awake by calloused ones creeping around my throat and threatening to squeeze the life out of me. I enjoy literate, contemplative indie rock made by career musicians who still take risks even while they are able to pay cash for real estate with the money they've raked in from previous albums and tours. And I like the National, I really do. It's just that I don't really care about them anymore.
I have talked a bit about Spoon on this site, specifically noting that there isn't much left to say about them and their authentic affability. They have magnetic charisma and they couple that with songs that are genuinely interesting and, at times, boundary-pushing. However, Spoon feels like a band that it is no longer necessary to pay much attention to because their output is always very good. They get graded on the high side of a curve because it's been many, many years since they have put out a sub-par record (if they ever have since joining the Merge Records stable). It can be somewhat difficult to care about a band that one knows will probably never dip below a certain level of overall quality, even if that level is rather high - the certainty of being rewarded is maybe a bit less interesting than the excitement of being rewarded where it wasn't as expected.
None of this is the same as Vampire Weekend, either. Father Of The Bride dropped recently, and the critical audience was very enamored with it in general. For me, this new LP felt like a boxer dropping his guard and sticking out his chin: no longer afraid and feeling invincible, he turns heel and stands in the middle of the ring daring his opponent to take a shot. VW don't have the history of either Spoon or the National, and only four albums in they don't really have a run of quality that would stack up to either. So my lack of concern for FOTB is more about that album's mis-steps than about anything larger: country tropes used in ways that feel distinctly unearned, guest vocalists that only serve to highlight Ezra Koenig's lack of technical singing ability (he's a great vocalist, but a so-so singer), and a vague uneasiness about the production that makes it sound like it's either regressive or lazy depending on your vantage point. A few songs ("Harmony Hall", "Sympathy") point far away to an alternate timeline version of what this LP might have been, but they stay away from those highs for the most part. My boredom with them is due to this most recent album's inability to engage me, not due to the band being so predictably good that I lose interest.
On the other side of the coin we have Interpol, another band I have spilled some digital ink on discussing here before. Everyone agrees that they will almost certainly never attain the highs they achieved with Turn On the Bright Lights, and yet I remain interested in them because they seem to be genuinely trying to do exactly that against all reason. They haven't given up on themselves, and their need to be liked and/or relevant is as heartwarming as it is perhaps a bit cringe-inducing coming from men at their age and in their position as elder statesmen in the modern rock landscape. This might be just my own foibles coming up to the surface, but I find it refreshing that they keep banging their heads against a wall. It takes commitment, and it takes an all-consuming desire to be loved, and these are both things that I have respect for.
And yet, bands that constantly keep trying to no avail don't have a monopoly on my interest. Radiohead has never put out a bad record, and for anyone who wants to bring up their debut I will remind them that, while not strictly great, it remains vital as the evidentiary time capsule of where they started artistically. Their casual brilliance has never seemed uninteresting to me, and I have no reason to think it ever will. They have a legitimate claim to being the best HUGE band that has ever existed and they might be the last of their kind in that they can fill stadiums and sell millions of records, but their songs are often as political and socially conscious as those of any statement-band that no one's ever heard of. They are a perfect amalgamation of different types of viability: commercial, artistic, and sociological.
The National remains a top-shelf band, and no one can dispute that in good faith. They may not be everyone's preferred listen, but it would be disingenuous to call the vast majority of their work since Boxer "bad" or "poorly made". Other writers have commented on how there is a safety in their steady churn, implying that the stability can be a double-edged sword. I don't disagree with this assessment, but I would perhaps take it a step further into what essentially amounts to a lose-lose proposition for any band: bands are only as interesting as their capacity to make bad songs, unless they can find ways to write nothing but stunners.
Using this framework on the bands discussed here, we can see that the National and Spoon almost never write anything bad but they also have songs that are middling even while they are exceedingly well-executed. Vampire Weekend remains interesting as a band precisely because they still have the capacity to make a record that is aloof and a bit arrogant. Interpol have written many bad songs in the interest of their ongoing glory-days reclamation project, and it is an endearing roller coaster of peaks and valleys. Radiohead has, in my humble opinion, not written a bad song since they were known as On A Friday, and so their retention of fans' interest stays at the same plateau and still shows the ability to spike around album cycles and as new fans come on board.
We live in a culture where it is possible to make a more-than-decent living as a musician playing rock music, even though we still have a long way to go to make things equitable for those coming up from the bottom (this last point is a whole other article). When taken as a whole, this is undeniably a great thing, and I have all the respect in the world for bands that continue to put themselves on the line both in the studio and on stage because I am not naive to the fact that it is hard work. At the end of the day, I am not arguing against the success of any of them. But I wouldn't be doing my self-appointed job if I didn't point out that there can often be a dissonance between how good a band is and how important they are.
The situation is not a dire one, it can never be a bad thing to have too many options when it comes to good bands. Occasionally losing interest in bands that are still putting out high-quality work is actually a good problem to have. This would indicate that the supply of good music is overfilling the demand for it, thus the marketplace is allowed to remain consumer-driven. But there is a sting of heartbreak in the sum of all of this if we follow it to its logical conclusion: the only thing that might be worse than being a band that is bad, is being a band that is just a little bit too good.