Welcome to the 1%J 2014 1%J ADVENT PLAYLIST, in which we attempt to reconcile the simultaneously occurring but often contradictory spirits of Advent season and the “holidays.” It has recently come to our attention that there’s a typo in this introductory paragraph thing, but we are going to leave it because now it is a “tradition,” like that blue streak through the T in “Deckmaster” on the back of Magic Cards.
Like all their best songs, The National construct “City Middle” of repeating sections rather than verses and choruses. A line will be sung twice, then the song will shift, move through other segments, come back to the initial line to repeat it twice more, work in lines from previous sections, all the while slowly edging up in intensity, from a calm thrum to a low simmer. New sections will emerge to be left and then brought back again after a loop through a section from earlier.
All of this circuitous motion reminds me not so much of the patterns of snowflakes – it can’t all be snowflakes – but more of driving aimlessly through snowy roads in the night, taking turns at random, ending up sometimes back where you were before, only occasionally moving forward.
Matt Berninger asks to be taken to “the nearest famous city middle where they hang the lights” – he wants to be surrounded by people, in the intimacy of a crowd, he wants to be bathed by the Christmas lights that drape the trees. The song opens feeling warm, inviting, firelike. But as it hits its stride, we realize his desires are born of something else. “I’m on a good mixture / I don’t want to waste it,” Berninger sings. “I’m really worked up.” This is the wintertime stir-craze, this is drinking too much in December, this is uppers and downers dialed in almost too well. This is weird memories of someone in long red socks and red shoes, pissing in a sink, floating to the surface of a hazy mind.
In one of the National’s signature tonal shifts, which are always subtle and always transcendent and always devastating, the song makes its major play, building into a somewhat frightening climax. Backup singers join in, as a piano enters with quietly thumping drums. Berninger recalls the song’s “you” – “Parking your car, you said ‘I’m overwhelmed’ / You were thinking out loud, you said ‘I’m overwhelmed’ / You said ‘I think I’m like Tennessee Williams / I wait for the click / I wait but it doesn’t kick in.'” Williams spoke of the click one feels when they’re just drunk enough that everything is the right level of blurred. The object of Berninger’s recollections can’t reach this point, not with all the wine in the world, and as always, it’s all too much.
Then it starts all over again.