One of the most literate and literary songwriters working today, the National frontman Matt Berninger, proudly admits to taking passages from some of his favorite authors. For example, in the group’s 2007 song “Mistaken For Strangers,” he quoted Jonathan Ames, know for “Wake Up Sir!” and the HBO show “Bored to Death.”
But on the band’s just-released seventh studio album, “Sleep Well Beast,” he quotes a less literary figure: Karl Rove, the strident and polarizing former senior advisor to President George W. Bush. In the song “Walk It Back,” Berninger takes a lengthy quote Rove reportedly said to journalist Ron Suskind for a New York Times article in 2004.
In a particularly galling passage, Rove said, “We’re an empire now and when we act we create our own reality…We’re history’s actors and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
The article identifies the speaker only as “a senior advisor” but it was widely speculated to be Rove, although he and Suskind both have denied it upon occasion. Still, the incorporation of a quote into the lyrics of a published song brings up the matter of intellectual property — and, in this case, a twist.
“What’s funny is Ron Suskind is asking us for a publishing cut and not Karl Rove!” Berninger says, chuckling. “So we’re gonna give Ron Suskind a piece of ‘Walk It Back’ and it’ll end up [adding up to] a couple hundred bucks in 20 years. But I have to ask that Ron Suskind share it with Karl Rove — I’d love Karl Rove to see that check, just to remind him we know he said that.”
Berninger was driven by his disdain for the quote and that administration to include it in the song, but, as outlandish as many of the things the current president’s quotes might be, they will never be enshrined in a National song.
“I’m not gonna quote him ever,” Berninger says. “He’s not something I feel is even worth making fun of — maybe someday, but right now I can’t even put his name in anything. Of course, I’ve been talking about him nonstop because no one can stop talking about him and we shouldn’t stop talking about him because he’s a white supremacist and so is his whole team. But I’m not gonna let him f— my songs up.”
Not surprisingly, politics is a driving force on “Sleep Well Beast.” Berninger says, as a father and husband, it’s impossible for him to exclude.
“I don’t know how to differentiate politics from fatherhood, for example,” he says. “So me lashing out in a personal way in a song like ‘Turtleneck’ is not me being political — it’s me being a father because there’s somebody out there who wants to take something away from my daughter, her autonomy, her rights to her body or who she chooses to love. So fatherhood or being a husband or a friend is political — it’s all super political to me, and it’s all personal.”