Hot New Joint: "Day I Die" by The National
If it feels like I’ve written about The National about once a month this summer, it’s because I practically have. It’s been a long, slow roll out for Sleep Well Beast, with singles released in May, June, and August—and now with the album’s arrival on the horizon, it’s time for one final preview—the rollicking and upliftingly titled “Day I Die.”
Coming after the somber, slow burning double-shot of “Guilty Parties” and “Carin at The Liquor Store,” “Day I Die” is a jolt to the system—reminding listeners that Sleep Well Beast isn’t going to be entirely comprised of maudlin sad bastard music (but that would be perfectly fine with me if it was.)
Structured around clanging accessory percussion and a frenetic, precise, and thundering rhythm from powerhouse drummer Bryan Devendorf, and crunchy electric guitar flourishes, “Day I Die” soars—for how downcast of a title it has, musically speaking, it’s absolutely triumphant sounding.
Simplistic in its driving hook, I wouldn’t say that “Day I Die” is a mean spirited song, but it doesn’t exactly put its protagonist—presumably National frontman and lyricist Matt Berninger—in a particularly good light, and thematically, it continues on with the overarching conceit of Sleep Well Beast, which from all these advance singles, seems to be about the give, take, and struggles of maintaining a marriage.
“I don’t need you, I don’t need you,” the opening line is hurled. “Beside I barely ever see you anymore.” Attempting to keep up with the ridiculously fast paced tempo of the song, Berninger outlines an argument between a couple, playing both parts, and making a surprising turn as an indie rock lothario with the line ,”Young mothers they love me, and even ghosts of girlfriends call from Cleveland—they will meet me anytime and anywhere.”
Early on in The National’s lyrics, Berninger was very self-referential—often recycling or calling back to other, older songs. This eventually tapered off around the time of High Violet; this reference to Cleveland in “Day I Die” is the first time in seven years that the band has made mention to their home state of Ohio, creating a juxtaposition to the line from “Blood Buzz Ohio”—“I never married, but Ohio don’t remember me.”
In the song’s third verse, Berninger also makes reference to a song dating back to 2005’s Alligator—the mysterious, slow burning “Val Jester.” “I get a little punchy with the vodka,” he confesses, “Just like my Great Uncle Valentine Jester did.” Then, shortly after that, he declares, whether he really wants to admit it or not, “I’m exactly like you Valentine. Just come outside and leave with me.”
“Day I Die” is an exercise in balance and contrast. It’s not as moody as “Guilty Party,” but lyrically, it is so visceral and real—and that is set against the back drop of a driving, anthemic ‘rock song,’ the kind that, sonically, is on par with the aforementioned “Blood Buzz” and Trouble Will Find Me’s “Sea of Love.”
Though both of those songs were a little melancholic and desperate, respectively, in their delivery, “Day I Die” boasts an unnerving sense of urgency—perhaps because it is true marital discourse set to music.
Long gone are the days of murky non-sequiturs and fragmented imagery from Berninger’s lyrics. The band has grown in the scope of its sound, and as a songwriter, he’s become more direct—Sleep Well Beast seems to be shaping up to be the band’s most direct, and most personal, thus far, and “Day I Die,” while not the most impressive of the advance singles from the record, is a strong indicator that this album is going to be absolutely devastating as a whole.