The National's 'Slow Show': My Love/Hate Relationship With The Song That Became An Obsession

The highpoint of their Boxer album was an instant hit for me. But as my personal life changed so did my connection with the song, to an almost unheatlhy degree...
Publish date:
Updated on

It had been said that Boxer was the very definition of a ‘grower’, and an initial listening of The National’s fourth album confirmed this as an apt description. I enjoyed the first five songs enough, without being particularly intrigued by anything other than opener ‘Fake Empire’.  Enter ‘Slow Show’.

The song is split in two- the first two and half minutes being a drowsy monologue about a guy at an office party with his mind on his girl at home. Shortly after an accordion roars, there's an almighty key change  and lead singer Matt Berninger croons: “you know I dreamed about you/for 29 years before I saw you/ You know I dreamed about you/I missed you for 29 years.”  He repeats it, then we fade out with the piano and the faintest white-ish noise that might be a scrape of a violin string.

And that’s it. It’s about 85 seconds.  But this coda started an obsession with the song that took nearly two years to shift.

Context is everything, of course, and the sign of a really great tune is if it attaches itself to a singular point of your life, so that a moment, place or person cannot be recalled without that song swimming in their slipstream.  In the case of ‘Slow Show’, it will always be associated with a girl I thought I was going to marry. For sake of whimsy, let’s call that girl Sally.

Ours had been a strange, contorted tale that, after a five year courtship/pursuit ended with us living together: first as friends, then as lovers, before she departed on a long-planned,year long trip to Australia. I had resolved that I wouldn’t go to Oz for reasons that I mostly still stand by.

A year later Sally came back, ostensibly to be with me.  When she did, it turned out she had been living with a fella out there, and I’d spent a stupid year in my own head, drinking too much and shagging half the city in a desperate attempt to show that I was just fine without her, thank you very much.  I blindly thought we would pick up just where we left off, whilst she (quite rightly) knew it wouldn’t be as simple as this. In the end we shouted at each other for a couple months, cried more than is decent, and split up. It was fucking awful. For a long time I felt like my best friend had died.  In a way, I suppose she had.

So I heard ‘Slow Show’ somewhere in the couple of months after she’d gone to Oz, and loved it instantly. At first it was all about that coda: the vague sense of the otherworldy in a simple sentiment drenched with melancholy about this girl who for years had been in his head but not his bed.  

I subsequently found out that the oft-mentioned coda is actually lifted from a song, ’29 Years’, on the band’s first album. It’s a vastly different beast to ‘Slow Show’ and that only increased the myth for me.

As I listened to ‘Slow Show ‘more regularly- and by regularly I mean five, six, ten times a day-I got it in my head that the bloke in the first part of the song was basically me.  A bit slurry, red eyed, wall-bumpy and bristly, checking his phone to see if he’d got a text message from her, then telling himself that he was just checking the time when there was nothing there.

Around this time, I decided to take decisive action regarding the situation.  Oh yes.   I started writing a short story.   That short story turned into quite a long story that became a novel and that novel took over my brain for 6 months or so.  A large proportion of the composition of said book was spent listening to Boxer and over time it revealed itself to be a masterpiece (the album, not the novel)- a grizzly exploration of mid-mid life masculinity. It’s in and around my top three albums ever.

Problem was, for a long while every time I got to ‘Slow Show’ I stopped the fucker and repeated it a few times; glorying in the pitiable sense of emptiness that can only come from a really stupid wallow.

As I careered to the end of the novel the song had so infiltrated my consciousness that in the final chapter the main character- who bore a startling physical and emotional resemblance to the novel’s author- ruminates widely on the profound and not always positive effect the song has had on him. I know what you’re thinking.

Fast forward 18 months or so- during which I have blathered on a lot about that bloody coda- and I’m at a National gig in Alexandra Palace, getting texts left and right about ‘Slow Show’.  Frankly it’s starting to piss me off: a lot of water has passed under that bridge, I’ve moved on and life is generally great.  My love affair with The National has reached new heights with Trouble Will Find Me, and ‘Slow Show’ is just one of any number of songs I’ve been thinking about seeing.   Or at least that’s what I think, because after they start I can’t relax.  I feel nervous, twitchy. I want every song to be ‘Slow Show’. Not because I'm desperate to listen to it per se, but because I want to be rid of it. That in some way seeing it will bookend a period of my life that I am pretty happy to see the back of.

And then it comes, and in a flash we’re through the first part and it’s all great and my hands reach over my mouth, heart cantering and eyes wide and maybe a bit moist as they rock their way through the triumphant coda (ANYONE GOT ANOTHER WORD FOR IT?).  It’s an introspective song, but live it’s a big-bollocked beast tearing through the audience’s collective chest.  As Bryan Devendorf brings his sticks to rest on the drums, the 10,000 throng roar affirmation back at a band who are becoming heroes in this big airy hall somewhere in North London.

“Thank fuck that’s over,” I say to my friend, who nods with the certainty of one who knows the song’s place in my personal history.

The rest of the gig was beautiful: one of my favourite ever, and not (as people seem to assume) because we all stood round sobbing into our pints and thinking of people with whom we’ve shared our hearts.  Instead, the communal joy of these melancholy vignettes was rooted in the fact that someone out there could illuminate the cogs inside our minds.   During the encore, I even did the ultimate fanboy trick of stroking Matt Berninger’s face when he came into the crowd during ‘Mr November’.

But that’s another story altogether.

Follow David on Twitter- @Gobshout


The Best Elbow Album Tracks
Why Augustines Might Be The Next Great American Rock Band