On May 5, 2013, The National played the song “Sorrow” from their 2010 album High Violet more than one hundred times in a row at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The performance lasted over six hours. A collaboration with the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, it was called, straightforwardly enough, A Lot of Sorrow. Kjartansson recorded the event with multiple cameras and crafted a video as long as the original performance. This video installation was displayed in a Brooklyn art gallery in 2014. The following year, the band released a nine-LP vinyl pressing at two hundred bucks a pop, with all profits donated to charity.
The band’s frontman, Matt Berninger, described performing A Lot of Sorrow as “a really good experience physically and mentally.” The recording shows signs of band and audience enjoyment, laughing and singing through a mouthful of sandwich. Which begs the question: How could singing about your own sadness for six hours straight, in the same way and with the same words, possibly be a good mental experience? What is so enjoyable about repetitive musical misery?
Laura Snapes’s Pitchfork review of A Lot of Sorrow notes a strange thing about listening to The National: their sad, repetitive songs seem to ask you to compound their sadness by repeating them over and over again. Snapes describes herself as “a card-carrying National devotee who’s seen them play 25 times in six years, who can’t make it through Alligator without listening to ‘Baby, We’ll Be Fine’ a dozen times straight, or High Violet without lingering on ‘Lemonworld’ for half an hour.” A friend of mine once listened to “Racing Like a Pro” from Boxer for 6 hours straight upon learning of a friend’s death. It was playing when she opened the email, and instinct told her to put it on repeat. “Sometimes,” she told me, “it’s like the music just gives you back something that you didn't even know you were holding, so the ouroborosian circle spins on.”
A couple of months before our daughter was born, my wife and I moved into a century-old, one-and-a-half story frame house in Maplewood, Missouri, a slowly gentrifying inner-ring suburb of St. Louis. Fresh paint and new floors blinded us to the house’s decrepitude. The dank, mold-infested basement—crawling with cave crickets and house centipedes, and too short to comfortably stand up in—slowly testified to its true condition.
When our newborn came screaming into the house in April 2014, we struggled to meet her tiny life’s endless stream of needs. My wife dragged her postpartum depression upstairs to our bedroom and didn’t come out. An occasion of joy—the birth of a healthy daughter—gave rise instead to bewilderment and resentment.
While she hunkered down in the bedroom, I supervised the baby’s tummy-time and prepped bottles—or put my fist through a door when naptime failed. I tried to talk to her about treatment for the sadness and lethargy that dogged her, but this made her feel condemned for sinking into survival mode. The conversations ended in shouted obscenities. When she took off in the middle of an autumn afternoon for her mother’s in Dallas, I wasn’t sure when she was coming back. But a few days later, she did, armed with a prescription that did nothing to help. Part of me believed I could count on no one but myself to pay attention to my daughter’s needs.
The Great Recession’s lingering effects had already forced me to recalibrate my life’s story-so-far. I had hoped the domestic happiness chapter of this narrative was still intact, and I squeezed it tighter as my career horizons shrank. Now I felt those pages disintegrating in my grasp.
Music was my respite. Commuting up and down Big Bend Drive to the graduate program where I studied, I queued up a live recording of The National’s song “Graceless” and set my car stereo on repeat, wanting to see just how many repetitions I could squeeze into each commute. I turned the volume up and sunk into the sound’s center. For those few minutes, my reality ended at the song’s edges.
It’s a strange song to find solace in. Like much of the band’s catalogue, “Graceless” sets melancholy lyrics to a driving beat. Lyrically, it understands “grace” as at once aesthetic—the capacity to carry oneself with dignity and deftness in social situations—and sacramental. In the chorus, a voice offers Berninger cheap grace: God loves everybody. He undercuts the cliché immediately: Don’t remind me. Feeling at once inept and unforgiving toward self and other—your spouse, say—you come to feel unforgivable and unworthy. All you want is a painless escape from this intolerable situation:
Is there a powder to erase this?
Is it dissolvable and tasteless?
You can’t imagine how I hate this
But “this” is simply being your graceless self, a condition that no one can escape. Or can you? When Berninger sings, I am not my rosy self, he perfectly captures the uncanniness of anxiety and depression, the way that mental illnesses, or simply our shortcomings, render us strange to our own selves.
Refusing the listener a quick escape and easy consolation, “Graceless” offers a coping-mechanism cocktail that’s one part self-contempt, another dissociation. If I hate myself, but I’m not myself, then I don’t really hate myself; I hate the me that’s not me. This self-loathing finally ratchets up to self-destruction. The bridge’s incantation There’s a science to walking through windows evokes the image of throwing oneself from a building, the impetuousness of the act perversely intensified by the cool calculation of science and the deliberate pace of walking. The song washed over me, and I marinated in self-hatred, repeatedly imagining myself hurling my body through a window.
When my wife’s depression bottomed out the following spring, she bravely faced down the stigma she’d internalized, quit her job, and started intensive therapy. The daily sessions and a new prescription allowed her to start rebuilding her life, beginning with getting to know herself. Things should’ve gotten better for me, too, and in many ways they did. But somehow I remained stuck.
Every time my daughter cried during the first three years of her life, I panicked; the sound yanked me back to those lonely initial weeks and months. When she started sleeping through the night, I still couldn’t. I jerked awake at all hours with the slightest sound, listening for her cry. But my hypervigilance only made things worse.
Something in the overwhelming malheur of “Graceless” rhymed with the grief I felt at my wife’s disappearance into the dark wood of her illness, my helpless insufficiency before my tiny daughter’s emotional and physical hungers. With repetition, I knew every associative twist of lyric, every modulation of melody inside its four-minute confines. The song was a little room, dimly lit, but it made sense, and that was comforting.
When I listened to that line about walking through windows, I didn’t see a mangled body lying at the bottom of a ten-story drop. I dreamed of flight, not suicide. Was I flying away from my wife and daughter? I think I’ve often insulated myself with art from the connections and affections of others, especially my family—dropping an instant cone of silence by putting on a pair of headphones, the burying myself in books on cross-country drives, closing my door and cranking my guitar amp.
But even if I’ve often used art as a means of isolation, I don’t think that’s always the case. I probably started listening to “Graceless” for sheer escape. But the song worked on me on another level, despite my intentions.
In religious practice, repetition often quiets the mind, lowers its prickly defenses and renders it permeable to spiritual influence. There are Hindu and Buddhist meditation practices centered on the repetition of a mantra, a kind of endlessly fingered coin of language. Some Eastern Christians practice hesychasm—literally, “quietness”—by constantly repeating the simple words of the “Jesus Prayer” until they become a portal for divine presence. Listening to “Graceless” built a breakable barrier around my ego, then exploded it, ingraining in my mind the habit of hope. It became a kind of repeated prayer, a musical hesychasm. I sought refuge in the song, but the song knew better. My compulsive listening built something less like a battlement and more like a membrane, protective yet porous. Such a barrier isn’t just a defense against danger—it’s also a defense against defensiveness.
Its lyrics never escape the gravity of everyday misery, but musically, “Graceless” grants the listener flight from the constrictions of a damaged self. At the end, the song literally rises; Berninger jumps an octave and howls. He sings the same words, the same melody, once more—only this time at shorter wavelengths, charged with twice the energy. My voice can’t reach the lower frequencies of his baritone, and it only just stretches as high. I sang along at the ragged top edge of my range; I had to give myself totally to hit the notes.
“Grace”—the last word of the song, its benediction on the listener—might be a word for this experience: for the space of a few measures, you lose your voice and lose your self inside pure, raucous sound. It’s the opposite of resentment, that possessive clawing at your disappearing self. But this grace only lasts a moment, frangible as a soap bubble or, to use the song’s image, a cut flower. You need it again. You hit repeat. And you break into something, or something breaks into you.