Being relatively out of the modern musical loop, I come to The National’s latest album, High Violet, with no preconceptions – this is my first encounter with the band, and perhaps it says a bit too much about my age that I connect with the group not through whatever hipster cred they may carry, but because they come across as sonic cousins to a certain flavor of moody 1980s alternative that filled my youth.
But even without the retro comparison, High Violet is an album that floors me with every listen as it builds to its devastating finale: “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” It’s a wallop of a closer, a haunting melody (credited to Matt Berninger, Carin Besser, and Aaron Dessner) built on orchestration that’s at once sweeping and subdued, the sort of hauntingly catchy (catchily haunting?) tune that’d be right at home on a Sigur Rós record, layered around aching, restrained vocals from lead singer/lyricist Berninger. It’s the sound of being completely lost in a sea of mental fallout.
The lyrics are intentionally vague, and Google offers no help – websites can’t agree on what words are being sung here, while message boards remain riddled with debates on what, if anything, is happening in the song’s story. The internet’s lone revelation is that Berninger once explained in an interview that “Vanderlyle Crybaby” is a character’s name, and that “Vanderlyle” is a three-syllable concoction existing nowhere in the real world. A separate interview shows the singer expressing his preference for opaqueness: like early R.E.M., the vocals blend in with, and become part of, the music itself, while the listener may interpret words anyway he or she sees fit, bringing one’s own experiences to what becomes a personal translation.
So it would be foolish of me to state with clarity what the lyrics mean; for me, they change with each return visit. But I can at least praise them for the way they paint a sort of expressionist view of emotional isolation. Consider the mid-song chant of “All the very best of us / String ourselves up for…” The word that ends the line is murky: it could be “the” (which leaves the sentence brilliantly, frustratingly unfinished), or it could be “them” (which adds a bitter taste – are “them” worth the stringing up?), or it could be, as some websites state, “love” (which sorta fits but seems far too simple a solution). Either way, it reminds us we’ve all been crushed before.
“The waters are rising” invites images of tears, rain, a dangerous storm – anything, really, that stirs up thoughts of inescapable sadness. One can even go further to suggest “string ourselves up” and “hanging from chandeliers” hint at a tale of post-suicide.
If so, it may have been an unnecessary one. Whatever pain this “Vanderlyle” person is hoping to escape, it’s water under the bridge, so to speak. “Man, it’s all been forgiven / The swans are all swimming” imply the end of a storm, not the middle, all things returned to normal in everyone’s eyes except for the title character’s, who may be unable to escape his memories. Our narrator is burdened with the chore of communicating between “Vanderlyle” and his friends; he’s left (his circle of friends? the city? his life?), and the narrator appears to understand: “I’ll explain everything to the geeks.”
Is the singer belittling the title character’s pain? The character’s name is an insult. The “Crybaby” refrain is an obvious slap, while “Vanderlyle” is the sort of posh moniker an upper crust spoiled brat might have. The opening lyrics come off as empathetic to his plight (“Leave your home / Change your name / Live alone”) until the fourth line (“Eat your cake”) implies the depression is little more than snot-nosed whining. The swans and chandeliers of the lyrics can then work in upper class connotation – no pigeons or cheap ceiling fans for these folks – and “the geeks” could be those friends to whom “Vanderlyle” feels smugly superior. Yeah, yeah, you go have your crying fit, I’ll go hang out with the rest of the losers.
It’s a sort of all-purpose feel-bad song, underlining your blues if you want it to, wryly mocking the same blues if you want an extra dose of loathing (self- or otherwise).