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Colleen Sheehy, NxNW, Published November 20 2013

Sheehy: Art experience found in novels, paintings and indie band The National

I’m hooked the minute the strum of an acoustic guitar starts in, with the subtle clarinet notes playing underneath. Then the voice comes in: “Don’t make me read your mind, you should know me better than that …”

This is the opening of The National’s latest album, “Trouble Will Find Me,” a song called “I Should Live in Salt.”

Friends sometimes ask me – what are you listening to, what are you excited about? Well, for the past five months, I’ve listened to “Trouble Will Find Me” more than 100 times.

My listening horizons seem to have narrowed temporarily. I can’t get enough of this album. It continues to draw me in.

There’s something that eludes me and resists explanation about this music. But good art often has that effect. Rather than showing you everything easily and at once, it demands more of your attention and keeps you returning.

What makes The National’s music compelling is its complexity and the fact that all of its elements add up to be more than the sum of its parts. “Trouble Will Find Me” is an example of popular music as art in that it richly rewards repeated listening and study.

I’ve followed The National for about 8 years now over the course of many albums.

Their style is hard to describe and pin down. The music alternates between brooding and exuberant, simple melodies and layered sounds. There’s a shimmering quality to the way their dense instrumentation comes together. Horns, violins, cellos, clarinet are layered with guitars, keyboard, and piano, giving their songs texture, grandeur, and, at times, an orchestral quality. Then there’s the rhythm of their songs, with the drums forward in the mix, multi-rhythmic and unpredictable.

The National’s sensibility is melancholic, partly conveyed by lead singer Matt Berninger’s bass voice and the pace of the songs. The lyrics are poetic, full of vivid, sometimes surreal imagery, often about missed connections with those you love: “I should live in salt for leaving you behind ...”

In a recent study about the impact of listening to sad music, scientists found that people vicariously experience those emotions without actually being in a state of personal sadness. The study points to one of the functions of art – to allow us to imaginatively understand experiences that may be outside our own.

Art allows us to feel and explore a range of emotions that may not fill our everyday lives. How liberating to be able to get out of your own skin and head! That is something that draws me to art all the time.

We can find these experiences in great novels, plays, paintings, and symphonies. And we can find them in four-minute songs by an indie band like The National.


NxNW is an occasional arts and culture column written by Colleen Sheehy, director and CEO of the Plains Art Museum in Fargo