Everything Is Embarrassing: On Loving The National

Photo courtesy of 4AD

Music for a leaking heart

Most of the things we love are the things that embarrass us. Most of the reasons we love people are the same reasons they embarrass us. I got into the National late, after just about everybody I knew, when High Violet came out in 2010. I may have been a dilettante and a joiner, but I joined with the fullest heart, with the most aggressively committed sentimentalism imaginable. I got into the band with my whole face, with my whole bad leaking heart, the kind every one of their songs chronicled; a bad leaking heart that was majestic and untrustworthy and slightly off-key, dragging itself desultory and bloated down the sidewalk to another party to drink at the open bar with everybody else’s bad hearts.

I had never loved a band like I loved this band, and the truth is I never really have since. I acknowledge that quite a lot of music is better than the National, more accomplished, more important, more coherent, and less embarrassing. But we rarely love things for reasons that aren’t embarrassing. The things we really love say more about who we are than we’d like them to say. The National are far and away my favorite band, but if you asked me what music I like and I didn’t know you well, I wouldn’t necessarily mention them. That answer would reveal too much. Maybe I don’t want you to know me that well; maybe I don’t want to be that known. 

The National put out a new album last month, and suddenly there was a rush to admit that you’d secretly always loved them. Everyone I knew loved the National like I did, and many of these people were close friends, and I had had no idea. This may partly be a function of the band not having had an album out for a long time, not giving any of us a reason to discuss them. But bands come up in conversation between albums, at least the bands you love in the way that so many of us were talking about loving them, bands who soundtracked the flow of emotions of from one season of life to the next, whose songs were tagged to our breakups and new loves, rejections and triumphs and walks of shame. 

I’d wanted to write about the National, or talk to friends about them, in 2013 when Trouble Will Find Me came out, but I was embarrassed by my feelings and nobody else was really talking about it, so I kept quiet and told people I was kind of over the band, meanwhile playing “Graceless” so many times on repeat in my headphones that I cannot think of meeting the man who’s now my husband without hearing the backbeat of that song, and cannot hear the song without being thrust back through time to when this person who now lives in my house only lived in my phone. I made a lot of jokes about dad music and dad cardigans, and then I played “I Should Live in Salt” every time I cried on the subway.

Which makes me think that maybe it isn’t that we just never had a reason to talk about the National, but that this is a band so many of us have loved so long and in such a specific skin-close, embarrassing way that we don’t necessarily want to share it. Maybe this is why we all had to say we loved The National by making jokes about how bad it is to love them, and maybe we made these jokes for the same reasons that Sleep Well Beast inspired confessions rushing like a stopped-up faucet from so many people I know. 

Sleep Well Beast is a departure not just musically, but narratively, for the band. For years they were an absolute Brooklyn, New York, cliche, a gang of overgrown sad boys neglecting their families to live in a big shared house in Ditmas together and combatively make music all day long. That fantasy has split up and shattered since the last album, and now the band’s participants are scattered across not just the country but the world, in places as far-flung as Paris and Cincinnati. Sleep Well Beast was a reunion of sorts, recorded at Aaron Dessner’s upstate New York studio, where the band would unite when their schedules allowed for planned bursts of musical productivity and recording. The album is a specific incident in time, rather than a lifestyle, a more intentional album than any other of the others so far. Berninger has called the lyrics “more emotionally direct,” and the music itself is more straightforward as well, with at least two songs—“Day I Die” and “The System Only Dream in Total Darkness”—being the most approachable jams the National has ever written. I have frequently tried to get my husband to listen to the National, but before this, it had never stuck. His only comment last summer, when I put all their albums on shuffle on Spotify and played it in the car was, “Is that guy going to apologize again?”

But last week, he texted me that he couldn’t stop listening to “Day I Die” on repeat, compared the band to the Cure, and then went face-down in the band’s back catalogue, texting me a running commentary of exclamation and discovery and new love that I remember from seven years and two albums ago. Then, I was just barely 26 years old when High Violet came out, and I had just gotten out of a very bad relationship. On the other side of that breakup, the world felt saturated with oxygen, like an abundant holiday table when you haven’t eaten all day, everything for grabbing. I was so profoundly, disgustingly grateful for the world, for each next day, for each new thing. I listened to “Bloodbuzz Ohio” for the first time, and I wanted to put myself inside its majestic, wallowing, self-mocking sound, the floor-dragging baritone of the lead singer whose voice sounded like a car driving with the brake on and the unreasonably optimistic backbeat pulling it forward all the same. 

This push-pull of the music, between deadened sadness and unjustified giddiness, drove from one song to the next, each playing on repeat and giving shape to days and then weeks and then a whole section of my life. I spent that summer scheduling the tutoring work I did to coincide with the National’s tour schedule. I took jobs in the same cities where the band would be, and saw them play shows across most of Western Europe. A friend who I’d met around the same time came with me to most of these, and we built our friendship like a reverse-motion house on fire, pouring into each other the most intimate details of our life, all soundtracked by this band with whom we were both newly obsessed. It’s still the reference point for how we know each other, the sound under the conversation, the thread that ties things together, a code language. 

Something about the National has always felt like an escape, which is at face value an odd thing to say about a band whose subject is mainly sadness and anxiety. It’s both easy to and fun to make jokes about this band being the saddest band, the saddest dads, a band full of sad dads who really love being sad. All of these jokes are accurate: The National is a band whose form and content is sadness. But the reason this band’s music seemed to act as an opening of a pressure valve on my own sadness and anxiety and that of my friend is that it’s about sadness rather than grief. Their music is the difference between the two, the luxury of sadness versus the hard edges of grief. 

Sadness spreads like a stain, sadness feels bodied and over-sensitized and ringing, like the first time you got high when you were a teenager, when you lay down on the carpet and nothing had ever been better or more important than the carpet. Sadness often acts as a temporary escape from grief. There are lots and lots of things worse in human reality than a broken heart or an unfaithful lover, and all of them are absent in the National’s music. That’s so much of what’s wonderful in it. Its sadness is a reckless, obliterative escape from the larger griefs of the world, focusing in on the overwhelming, petty, selfish concerns of the privileged heart. This music is enjoyable, squishy, and opulent in all its bad-hearted moping. Nothing in this music howls; everything oozes, everything has another drink and swoons into bed, sad and horny.

They’re a profoundly horny band, too, as much as they’re sad, which gets talked about less but is equally if not more the draw for their fans year after year and album after album. Much discussion and writing about the National skids over the fact that a whole lot of their songs are about one kind of weird sex or another. They probably say various words for “penis” in their lyrics more than all other comparable bands combined. The National’s music is about sex in an unglamorous, desultory way that speaks to how often sex is neither romantic nor sexy, just as their songs about love appeal to the part of us that knows that love is essentially more frightening than it is kind, a claw that scratches us down to the ugly parts laid bare. Every time the National sing a declaration of love, it sounds like a threat, and the most romantic-sounding song on the album is a warning of horrors yet to come. A lot of music thinks that sex is like riding a motorcycle and believing you won’t ever die when in fact it’s the opposite; sex isn’t rock and roll, and neither are the National. 

The thing about having a long relationship with a band is that it signposts one’s life, and sometimes the way it does so is profoundly uncomfortable. I waited a few days to listen to the songs that came out in advance of this record because I wasn’t sure I was ready to perform the taking-stock that I knew would inevitably happen, the way the continuance of the things we love drags us back to who we were at every point in our life when we loved them. Returning to this band when they put out new music is like returning to an old friend: deeply familiar and wholly uncomfortable. It’s a reckoning with the changing self, the truths we look away from and the threads that pull continuance through a life, the things we have lost, failed to maintain, or tried to slough off. 

When I finally put it on, though, the record seemed to be about these very sort of difficult and imperfect returns, these strange and embarrassing continuances. The songs echoed these same ideas. Look at how you have been listening to this music for so long, all while struggling with all the same things, all while trying to find some parts of yourself and your existence meaningful and having some moderate mix of success and failure. Isn’t it ridiculous really that we’re all still here doing this same thing, still, even as age, even as we get old, even as time moves on and we should be better than this? And yet we still aren’t, and here’s another record. 

The thing about loving a band is that they get older at the same rate that you do, and at some point, the music starts to be about the fact that maybe you should be too old to care about all this same stuff, and yet you still do. 

The lyrics to many of the songs echo these uncomfortable returns. “Day I Die,” opens with, “I don’t need you, I don’t need you, anyway I barely ever see you anymore.” I thought of the best friend I made listening to High Violet seven years ago. While we’re still as close as we always have been, we don’t have the kind of friendship where we need to talk each day or even every month. The song seemed to be about that very thing, knowing someone and loving them while your lives have changed around you, when things have become less bright and less urgent. “I’ll Still Destroy You,” does something similar, with a haunting refrain that tugs out the sticky, bitterly delicious sentiment of seeing an old lover for the first time in a while, the strange sense of still wanting someone just like you always did is a crooked kind of homecoming. 

The day after Sleep Well Beast came out, I woke up to a text from this same friend. He was in New York, and heartbroken, and knew it’d been a while but could he come over and talk it out? We sat on the couch all day, messy and sad and indulgent and human, and eventually, we got from talking about our hearts to talking about the new album, and then back again, and again, in the same old easy language, in the same luxurious wallowing sadness. The continuance was ridiculous; it defied ideas of aging and maturity, the imperative to get over things and get better, to gather one’s self up and get one’s shit together. We returned to the same terrain, the same petty and compelling questions of betrayal and loss, the dissonances of love and desire, of safety and contentment, the bleak humor of the space between what we want and how it feels when we get it. Perhaps things don’t get better, says the National’s new album, and perhaps there’s something delicious about that. Look at all of us still here, look at the ongoings, despite the odds, of all our bad leaking hearts. 

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue

"I am honored to share this bonding experience with my own daughter"

In a heart-warming Instagram photo, Serena Williams shares the history of hair braiding and the importance of the tradition. The tennis player shared a photo of herself braiding her daughter Olympia Ohanian's hair and spoke about how "honored" she was to be able to "add another generation" to the tradition of the practice.

The photo shows Williams attentively braiding her daughter's hair while Olympia smiles, obviously loving the experience. Williams noted that hair braiding was created by the Himba people in Namibia, Africa, and that "we have been braiding our hair for centuries." "In many African tribes braided hairstyles were a unique way to identify each tribe," she continued.

Williams pointed out that braiding is a bonding experience. "People would often take the time to socialize," she wrote. "It began with the elders braiding their children, then the children would watch and learn from them. The tradition of bonding was carried on for generations, and quickly made its way across the world."

Williams closed her post with a sweet message about her daughter, saying that she's "honored to share this bonding experience" with her.

See the post, below.

Courtesy of Adidas

The Stan Smiths are a must-have

Adidas just shared its capsule of sneakers paying tribute to Keith Haring, and TBH I can already feel my wallet emptying (and they're not even on sale yet). The new collection features three shoe silhouettes, all including the late artist's iconic imagery as embroidered designs.

The standout style of the collection is the Rivalry hi-top; with bright blue and orange stripes and piping along the edges, Haring's stars and cartoon bodies, in black thread, pop right off. If you're looking for something less over-the-top, the quirky white Nizza Hi RF sneakers show a snake wrapping around the back of the shoe and chasing one of Haring's cartoon bodies toward the toe. There's also a minimal embroidered design on the toe of a classic Stan Smith pair. Look a little more closely at the tongue though, and you'll notice the traditional image has been swapped with a caricature of Haring himself.

Peep the three silhouettes, below, and set your calendar for the official drop at the end of the month.

Adidas, Rivalry Hi Keith Haring Shoes, $120, available at Adidas starting at 10am EST on June 30.

Adidas, Nizza Hi RF Haring Shoes, $120, available at Adidas starting at 10am EST on June 30.

Adidas, Stan Smith Keith Haring Shoes, $120, available at Adidas starting at 10am EST on June 30.

NYLON uses affiliate links and may earn a commission if you purchase something through those links, but every product chosen is selected independently.

Photos by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images, Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Hopefully this one will be typo-free

In an Instagram Live on Thursday, Taylor Swift announced that she would be creating a collaboration with fashion designer Stella McCartney inspired by her upcoming Lover album. Although she kept it vague, we can only assume that the two are working on a collection of luxe merch.

Swift noted in the announcement that she has been friends with McCartney "for a really long time," and that the designer already heard the new album. "I respect what she creates, how she creates it," Swift continued. "There's so much whimsy and imagination and romance to the clothing that she designs." Swift has been wearing McCartney's designs "a lot recently," so maybe we should have seen the collab coming.

One eagle-eyed fan pointed out that Swift wore Stella McCartney rainbow-hued shoes during her Wango Tango set. If the collab is anything like these shoes, you can bet I'll be copping it as quick as I can.

Swift detailed in her Instagram Live that the album Lover would be all about romance, which makes McCartney and her feminine designs perfect for the collaboration. We just hope that this collection doesn't have any typos, like some of Swift's "ME!" merch did.

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Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

And spreads the message that "we all got crowns"

Late on Thursday, Taylor Swift dropped a new single, "You Need To Calm Down," and announced her forthcoming studio album, Lover, out this August. Following her lead single "ME!" Swift continues to spread her message of self-love and call out haters—particularly the homophobic ones—in this latest song.

Swift "ended homophobic locals," as one fan put it on Twitter, with one particular lyric: "'Cause shade never made anybody less gay."

Along with the song, Swift shared a lyric video via YouTube which made her sentiments even clearer. With her lyric, "Why are you made?/ When you could be glad?" she spelled "glad" as "GLAAD," referencing the queer media advocacy organization.

Swift sings of homophobic protestors in the second verse: "Sunshine on the street at the parade/ But you would rather be in the dark ages/ Makin' that sign must've taken all night." In the pre-chorus, she adds, "You just need to take several seats and then try to restore the peace/ And control your urges to scream about all the people you hate."

Swift additionally comments on women being pitted against each other—"We see you over there on the internet comparing all the girls who are killin' it"—asserting that "we all got crowns." There's nothing trolls can do to rain on her parade anymore.

One fan pointed out the possible symbolism of the crown lyric. In "Call It What You Want," track 14 on Reputation, she sings "They took the crown but it's alright." Now on "You Need To Calm Down," track 14 of Lover, she sings that there's not just one crown—we all have them.

Some fans are pointing to the double meaning of the track title. If I had a dollar for every time someone said those words to me in a totally condescending way, I'd probably be richer than her! What woman hasn't been told to calm down about an entirely not-calm situation or while expressing their distaste?

During Swift's live stream for the release of the song, she also announced a fashion collaboration with designer Stella McCartney, a peek of which we got during the singer's WangoTango performance.

Lover is set for August 23 release.

Credit: Frederick Elmes/ Focus Features

"I was like, 'Did I sleep with this critic's girlfriend, or what?'"

The day I meet Jim Jarmusch, the sun hangs so bright and hot and yellow and solid in the sky that it's hard to believe that it will actually set at night. It's one of those New York June days that suggests we might be in permanent daylight; it's got a completely different feeling than the crepuscular atmosphere of Jarmusch's latest film, The Dead Don't Die, which takes place in a small town in what feels like one long twilight, maybe the last one.

But for today, Jarmusch and I are sitting at a table in a sun-filled restaurant, though we're in the shade. We're in a part of the city that used to be very punk rock, and is now very NYU, yet being there with Jarmusch, who looks so at home, like he's holding court in the booth (it helps that Larry Fessenden, an old friend of Jarmusch's and a writer/director/producer/actor, who appears in The Dead Don't Die, happens by the table to say hi), makes the area feel a little punk rock again, even with all the sun.

The Dead Don't Die is a very punk rock zombie movie, by which I mean: It's not very scary, but it is very cool, and even when it's sneering, it's a little bit tender. Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny as a trio of small-town cops who fight back against a nascent zombie apocalypse caused by fracking, the film is cast with a who's who of Jarmusch regulars, like Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, and Fessenden, to name a few; but it also features younger stars like Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, and Luka Sabbat—and there's a real earworm of a theme song, courtesy of Sturgill Simpson.

Below, I speak with Jarmusch about the movie, being a dilettante, and why he only reads his negative reviews—which is definitely one of the most punk rock things I've ever heard.

Photo by Gareth Cattermole/ Getty Images

This was filmed on a pretty condensed shooting schedule, right?
It was a very rough schedule. A very difficult one, actually.

We only had seven weeks to shoot, and we had to shoot Adam Driver out in three weeks because he had to be delivered to Star Wars, and the financing of the film was incredibly grueling and took a long time, so we were pushed so far that we had about one month of prep, and then three weeks with Adam. And then all these different actors coming in and out; I don't know how Carter and Josh, the two producers, organized it all. And then we'd shoot 15-hour days, and halfway through, I had walking pneumonia; I had two coats; it was 95 out; I was shaking. You know, just weird stuff like that. But it's all okay because we had such great people—our crew—everybody. And then, the visual effects were very taxing and complicated.

How did that all work together? Because there's more than one decapitated head.
Yeah, it's a mixture. First of all, we mixed prosthetics with makeup with masks for some of the zombie stuff, but all of those effects with the decapitations, we had to just imagine. So we had to choreograph everything and then only imagine kind of what it would be like, which was, for me, very abstract because I'm not very versed in visual effects. You know, you had to really kind of trust your instincts, because Adam Driver's chopping away with a machete with no blade.

It could've been a machete, it could've been a lightsaber, who knows? So, to what degree is this a sequel of Paterson with Adam Driver's character's last name being Peterson?
Well, I just do these things to amuse myself while writing, you know? Bill Murray in Broken Flowers was named Don Johnson, and in this, I gave him the name Cliff Robertson. Tilda Swinton's character is Zelda Winston. Rosie Perez is named Posie Juarez. You know, I'm just kind of amusing myself.

And Peterson, Paterson. While we were filming Paterson I was always teasing Adam that the next one, we would make was gonna be a sequel about a psychopathic murderous bus driver named Peterson. Tag line: "Get the fuck off my bus!" Or "Next Stop Hell!" You know, stuff like that. It's just to make them... I love trying to make Adam Driver laugh, because he has a very odd and wonderful sense of humor, but it's on the dry side, so I'm always joking around with him between work to try and see what makes him laugh.

But yeah, there's no sequel of any kind, and I don't think that way, and I don't plan, and I don't see my films from the past ever again. I just look toward the next thing.

Credit: Frederick Elmes/ Focus Features

What was the original concept for this? When did you start coalescing all of these different elements into knowing that you wanted it to be your next film?
Some years ago after Only Lovers Left Alive, Tilda kept teasing me, calling me, saying, "When do we do the zombies? When are we doing the zombies?" And in between I made Paterson and Gimme Danger, but then after those I started writing the zombie one, and my original conception was: I wanna make a film that's really funny and silly like Coffee and Cigarettes, where people talk about whatever nonsense I want them to, and I want to get actors I love, you know? So I thought, okay, if I make a zombie film, I can have a structure where different groups are cordoned off against the zombies, and the zombie attacks will be intermittent and not very long, so I'll have long lags where they're just stuck there, like in the house of The Night of the Living Dead, where they can talk about any kind of nonsense. So that was my first idea, and then when I started writing it, for some reason, I wanted to have a small town, Centerville, and I just followed my intuition, and it became this, I don't really know why beyond that.

What is it about small towns that make them the perfect setting for existential terror?
They're insular. They're kind of… everyone kind of knows each other. It's controllable by the characters. It's believable that everyone kind of know each other. I don't know. I'm not very good at analyzing that. And also, this is not a horror film because horror films use devices that are necessary to frighten people, like suspense, and then you get scared. We have no interest whatsoever in that. This is more of a metaphorical zombie film, but I would not call it a horror movie. It's a comedy with zombies with a kind of sad ending. Beyond that, I don't know what it is.

And horror nerds may not like it if they're expecting creepy, creepy, scary thing! They're not gonna get it. They're not gonna get that delivered to them.

What's interesting about it is seeing who fights back against this existential dread. Or, like, Chloë Sevigny's character, Mindy, doesn't fight, she is on her own separate trip, avoiding the end till she embraces it.
It's a character film. It's not even a plot film, really, although critics say that about all my films. But Chloë… it's a complicated thing, because when I first called Chloë, I told her... I wrote her a letter, and then she said, "Yeah, yeah I'd like to do this." And I said, obviously, this is not a feminist character. She's reactive. She's our sort of "Scream Queen." She screams like six times. But Chloë is the master of reaction, and I love watching her react.

She definitely feels like a stand-in for what a normal person would feel during these absurdist experiences, which is nice to have. It's not necessarily that you need a relatable character in a movie like this, but...
Yeah, but she's an empathetic human that's in a job with some authority, but in a small town where that means taking care of whatever, you know, as a police officer, pretty minimal [stuff]. There's not a lot of rampant crime or anything going on… or anything at all, really.

Credit : Frederick Elmes / Focus Features

A lot of people are going to be projecting tons of different meanings onto this film, like with all your films. To what level do you participate in that or pay attention to that? Or, once you're done making a film, is it just out there, and you just let people project onto it whatever they will?
I've always felt that anyone's interpretation of a film that I write and direct is probably more valid than my own. Because it's a funny thing, the beauty of films is going into a world—or a book or whatever—but going into a world that you don't know, and you are entering a world, and it takes you. And if you wrote it, and you were there filming it, and you're in the editing room every day for six months, the mix, and all that... I can never possibly see it. I like hearing what friends or people I know... I like Q and As after screenings because they have no agenda except their interest. I like that a lot, and I value that. I don't really like to read a lot of reviews unless they're really negative. I love the negative ones.

You do?
Yeah, because they must be very far from me in their perception of the world, and that is interesting to me. But I try not to read a lot...

I think you're probably the first person who I've ever spoken to who says they like to read the negative reviews.
I really like them. The worst one I ever got in my life, I laminated and used to carry in my wallet. It was a brief thing from a right-wing French [paper], maybe Le Figaro or something, of a film called Dead Man that we made, and they said—this is the English translation—"The French intelligence celebrates Jarmusch in the way death and blind parents would celebrate their retarded child. Jarmusch is 33 years old, the same age as Christ when he was crucified. We can only hope the same for his film career." I was like, Whoa! That is harsh! I'm keeping that one!

It gets personal.
But that was vicious. I was like, Did I sleep with this critic's girlfriend, or what? What happened? It was really... the knife was sharpened, you know.

That speaks to a very specific kind of agenda for sure.
A friend of mine Amos Poe, he's sort of a mentor of mine, a punk filmmaker, whatever, and when we were young when he made, in the late-'70s, one of his films—The Foreigner or Unmade Beds—the New York Times called it "the cinematic equivalent of kindergarten scribbling," and he put that on his posters and put "New York Times" and we were like punks, we were like, "Yes! Amos! That's great!"

I mean, it genuinely is a pretty great pull quote, and I think also a little bit oblivious to the charms of a kindergartener's scribbles and what the value is in that anyway.
Yeah, it was kind of accurate in a positive way, and they intended it as very negative.

In this film, there are so many actors who are veteran actors, but there are also a lot of younger actors. What do you like about the combination of that dynamic?
I just like the variety of sort of world perceptions—indicated in a very minor way when Bill Murray's character says, "I've known Hermit Bob since we were in junior high," and Adam's character says, "Oh, wow! That must've been like 50 years ago!" And Bill says, "Yeah. It was." But just the kind of difference of perception of age I find as I get older really interesting. And I'm very interested in young people, especially teenagers, because I think they form our sense of style, of music, of so many things, and yet they're kind of pushed around and treated badly and constantly told, "You don't know how the world really works! You're just a teenager!" But they gave us poetry. They gave us Mary Shelley and Rimbaud and chess masters, and all the great music comes a lot from teenagers. So I tried to keep a pulse, that's why the three teenagers, I would not let them turn into zombies. There are only four people [who don't get turned by zombies]: those three that are delinquents, and the Tom Waits character, who's already removed himself from the social order long before.

When the zombies become zombies, they all have one inciting thing that they're still pursuing in the real world. Do you have one thing that you think you would pursue if you were a zombie?
You know, it's hard because I'm a self-proclaimed dilettante. I'm interested in so many things, I don't know if I would be breaking into a bookstore, or if I would be in the alley outside of a movie theater, or if I would be trying to get into a guitar shop. I'm not sure. I have a lot of interests.

I mean there's a way in which it's a really tender portrayal of the human impulse to just seek out these things that they love.
It's not totally a critique; it's their vestigial memory of some things that they were drawn toward, whether it was power tools or oxycontin.

The Dead Don't Die is in theaters now.

Credit: Frederick Elmes/ Focus Features