|Album Rating: A|
Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers is a character assassination dressed up as a break-up record. While the musicianship of the band certainly plays a part in the album’s success, the spotlight is nevertheless centred on the frontman, Matt Berninger. His lyrics dart from first to second person, from self deprecating to seductive, as he slowly weaves an image of himself only to abandon it in tatters: hinting at the reality beneath. At first, he appears to be a man grieving at the loss of a relationship, like a lyrical virtuoso version of every young teenager. Throughout the album, he recalls names and events: regrets, mostly. Just another desperate man trying to move on. From whom? Well, Rachael I suppose. She’s the only woman given a name. Except the events change, the level of emotion fluctuates, we shift from grief to anger to joy and back again, Berninger keeps dropping in plurals... This is not a man wallowing in the loss of one woman, it’s the sound of all a man’s shame catching up to him at once. For him, no one was off limits. The girl’s married? Why not; he never cared at the time. This is the man who would go on to write “All The Wine”; we know he can build himself into a suave stupor to impress other people but alone he transforms into a wreck. In Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, Berninger is a man who needs other people to qualify his own self worth, yet he still wonders why the women he sleeps with do not share in his very personal form of self-loathing.
There’s no point in pity, however, as the finale of the album sees him complete the sociopathic fantasy of passing through the mess of life unscathed, as a “big person”. “You’re too small to remember/ You’re too small.../ Lucky you”, we’re told in the closing song. This fluorescent strain of self flattery tied up with grief might make it hard to sympathise but it certainly makes him more personable. He’s refusing to let himself slip into the cliches of musical protagonists, and to do so with such off-hand style is incredible. It’s the subtle change of words and constant ties between songs that gives Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers this dichotomic character, and is the principle reason that the character is so hard to spot in the first place. “I fell in love with you, no matter what they say” in “Trophy Wife” and “I fell in love with you, no matter what you say” in “Patterns of Fairytales” is one example of this very gradual change in perspective and even, possibly, person it's directed at if you want to look at it that way. For a narrative this entwined and nuanced I don’t think it’s surprising that things can be read in more than one, or even two, ways.
While building up the character of a well-spoken, but chronic asshole may be enough to solidify the album’s place as a solid piece of indie-rock music, it’s the tragic relatability that pushes Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers towards greatness. In “It Never Happened”, we’re given motives for his actions: boredom and helplessness. The ever memorable verse: “Nothing made a sound in William’s town that night/ And all the air was empty/ And what to my wondering eyes should appear?/ Nothing/ ‘Cos nothing ever happens here” echoes the thoughts of anyone trapped in a shitty satellite town slowly emptying as the bars close one-by-one. He just can’t help himself, we’re told, and at the same time we’re forced to wonder how close we are to collapsing into the same heap of beer-bottles and bed sheets. Berninger’s use of the second person solidifies this: with songs like “Slipping Husband” sounding somewhere between a warning and an instruction manual. The end effect is both haunting and sobering; a stark reminder of the fragility of our personal emotional states.
Of course, this effect would be impossible if it were not for the excellent musicianship constantly playing off the lyrical subject matter. Post-rock complexity this is not, but subtle touches pervade the soundscape of the album. The shift to violin at the end of “Cardinal Song”, for instance, is nothing short of a masterstroke. Similarly, the slight deviation into electronic effects in “Patterns of Fairytales” perfectly mirrors the resigned tone of the vocals. By keeping it simple, yet allowing for plenty of personal flair, the music gives the notable lyrics enough room to breath, which is the best decision they could have taken for an album so entwined with the personal life of its singer. Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers may not be pretty, or indeed relatable to most, but it certainly remains the most interesting of The National’s already impressive discography.