History has a habit of hanging around. This is especially true within the context of music. One can’t help feeling that contemporary artists are like tree saplings, struggling to reach the light under the heaving canopy of names like John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan. Of course, without the likes of Dylan, popular songwriting wouldn’t exist in the same form it does today, and, arguably, the road travelled by contemporary artists would look very different. But, for The National’s Matt Berninger, our reverence for artists of Dylan’s generation is damaging our appreciation of modern music.
Berninger knows a thing or two about songwriting. As the frontman of The National, he has penned some of the most evocative lyrics of the last 20 years. Those lyrics are deeply profound, capturing the essence of human life in a way that is, at once, deeply touching and surprisingly unpretentious. It’s all the more surprising given that Berninger came to music so late in life. He worked in advertising until his 30s when he quit his job to start The National with Scott Devendorf. In Berninger’s own words: “I was doing well [in advertising]. But, once I entertained the thought that maybe I wouldn’t ever have to go and sit in conference rooms with MasterCard to discuss web ads again, I couldn’t shake it.”
Today, The National are regarded as one of the 2000s key purveyors of college rock, a style informed by a uniquely literary sensibility, which builds on the introspective songwriting of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, whilst blending it with elements of post-punk bands like Joy Division. The National’s music has always incorporated aspects of classic songwriting with the more angular, contemporary approaches of modern artists. Perhaps that’s why Berninger refuses to divide music into arbitrary categories. For him, it all has value.
For some, Dylan is the beginning and end of music, but The National frontman is more clear-eyed about these things. In a recent interview, he explained why he feels Nick Cave is a greater artist than Bob Dylan: “I really do think that there are better songwriters writing songs right now than ever,” he says earnestly. “So many artists are doing their best writing right now. Like Nick Cave, and his last couple of records. For me, Nick Cave is the best songwriter alive. And I’m aware Bob Dylan is alive. Nick Cave has even gone past Cohen and Tom Waits for me – and that’s my trinity.”
In Berninger’s view, the quality of music being released by the likes of Nick Cave and Pheobe Bridgers is symptomatic of a watershed moment in the music industry. “It’s because of these past four years, of just being saturated with absolute bullshit from the news and information,” he continues. “Everyone knows it’s bullshit. Even the culture – the TV shows, the pop music, and everything else. Nobody can choke it down anymore. I don’t know any artists – and I mean the ones that are really artists – who aren’t making their best stuff right now.”
But what defines an artist? For Berninger, there’s a clear distinction between art and craft, and the real artists are those who can do both. “Sometimes you have incredible craft, but the art’s just not there,” he points out. “Just tell me something true! Tell me something new, and real! For example, ‘Wet Ass Pussy’ [WAP]’ is a beautiful work of art – because it’s fucking true. And it’s bold, and it’s beautiful. And it’s fun! That song has both the art, and the craft – because they crafted it into such a banger! The video’s amazing too. Everything about that is art. I think everybody’s tired of packaging these little ideas into something safe. Everybody’s like, ‘Fuck it – blow it all up’.”
As bizarre as it sounds, Cave also falls into this category of artist. With his work with The Bad Seeds and Warren Ellis, he has consistently pursued music that addresses the sometimes brutal reality of life. Cave’s album Ghosteen, for example, was written in the aftermath of his son’s death. The record is not only a brilliant collection of songs but a document of an important period of grieving. As well as being full of unanswered questions surrounding themes such as loss and existentialism, it is a deeply empathic and hopeful album. It encapsulates the entirety of Cave’s experience during that time and, as a result, glistens with truth and honesty. For Berninger, it is this kind of work that gives him hope for the future of music. Because if there’s one thing which can endure all the devastation of the internet age, covid, and big-business, surely it is music’s ability to capture the complexity of human experience.