Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

We listened to six hours of The National's "Sorrow" so you don't have to… but maybe you should

"A Lot of Sorrow"

Release date: 22 June 2015
The national a lot of sorrow
16 June 2015, 09:30 Written by Michael McAndrew
“Sorrow found me when I was young, sorrow waited, sorrow won…” On A Lot of Sorrow, the latest from NYC alt stalwarts The National, sorrow wins, well, a lot.

And if those lyrics sound familiar, it’s because this is not a traditional album release. A Lot of Sorrow is something closer to performance art, the result of a fruitful collaboration with Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson that finds the five-piece playing High Violet highlight “Sorrow” for over six hours live to an audience at New York’s MoMA PS1. Exploring themes of endurance and collective experience, the piece—first performed over two years ago—debuted as a video exhibit at the Luhring Augustine late last year.

Since the recording, the performance has become legendary, a “holy shit” moment in a decade sorely lacking in true “holy shit” moments supplied by rock bands. A snippet of the video can be viewed here, but there is an alternative for die-hard fans eager to hear what all the fuss is about: a limited (1500 copy) edition, vinyl-only nine-record box set supplied by 4AD, with all profits donated to Partners In Health.

This is a collector’s item in the strictest sense, a record to be seen and not heard. Nine transparent records in nine transparent sleeves, all contained in a screen-printed box displaying technical data that emphasizes the marathon nature of the performance. The result certainly looks stunning. But I’m in no position to comment on the aesthetics of the boxset because, well, I don’t own the boxset.

If I did, this might have all been so easy. I could have written 1,000 words about unboxing the damn thing. I could have marveled at its beauty, and remarked that it did, in fact, seem like a collection capable of containing six hours of the same song. But I am a journalist* (*Important Note: I am not actually a journalist.). And journalists don’t give up when their sources aren’t cooperating. Journalists don’t come home until the story is told.

So I’ve set out on a journey of self-discovery. Inspired by pioneers like Rembert Browne and Caity Weaver, I will press play when the time is right, knowingly volunteering for six hours that I suspect will test the limits of my willpower and endurance.

As a result, this will not be a traditional review. Think of it as something more like the (Live) Diary of a(n) (Increasingly) Madman. I’m not going to describe and comment on each of the iterations of “Sorrow” that bleed one into the next. I’m not going to attempt to score this “album” as an album. There will be no rating out of ten.

Instead, I’ll be checking in each hour with an update on my mental state, musical highlights from the eighteen or so iterations I’ve listened to since we last spoke, and the Billboard U.S. Year-End Hot 100 single of 1999 I’d rather be listening to. Why the 1999 chart? Well, besides the fact that it featured the theme song to one of the greatest feature films of all time, an inordinate number of brilliant one-hit wonders, and a collaboration between N’Sync and Alabama (!) that just snuck in at #100, there is a greater purpose at work here. The 1999 chart just so happens to overlap with the most awkward year of my life, and the songs on it remind me of nothing but embarrassment and defeat. I avoid them instinctually like a cat does a full bathtub. If ever there were a time to confront those demons, that time is now.

Finally, some pertinent statistics.

Runtime: 6 hours, 8 minutes, 3 seconds.

Times “Sorrow” is played: 105

Start time: 12:00 P.M. Eastern Standard Time.

Times I will hear “Sorrow” ever again: I’m ruling it out entirely for 2015. If, for instance, I hear “Sorrow” in the grocery store, I will leave a basket full of groceries in whatever aisle I’m perusing, walk briskly to my car, put my keys in, and drive directly into the nearest wall. Should I be on the top of a mountain consulting a guru, seconds away from total spiritual enlightenment when “Sorrow” begins to play from the retreat’s tastefully integrated speaker system, I will proceed directly to the apex and jump without a thought. In 2016? I’m keeping an open mind.


Current Mood: Surprisingly excited.

So here we are. After weeks of preparation, I grab a coffee and claim a table in the busy café near my house. I’ve had the morning to mull things over, to steel myself for this marathon and the toll it may take on me. At the moment, however, I feel a surprising excitement, a little thrill as I press play, knowing my fellow patrons are unaware of what I’m up to in my little outlet-adjacent two-top.

Musical Highlights: The most remarkable thing so far is the consistency. Each iteration bleeds into the next, and although there are subtle variations in these first sixty minutes—guitarist twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner trading rhythm and lead parts interchangeably, the occasional “Woo!” from the audience—the lack of interruption or alteration gives the first three sides a meditative quality. Considering I’m only approximately 17% of the way through this marathon, I could not be more delighted to be typing those words.

Song I’d Rather Be Listening To Right Now: Even though I keep expecting everything to fade into “Anyone’s Ghost”, I’m actually holding up pretty well so far. I could not be more ready for another five hours of this.


Current Mood: Beginning to show some cracks.

The coffee shop has more or less cleared of those that unknowingly embarked on this journey with me, and they haven’t been replaced. Free of distractions from others, I’m reminded of the first time I remember hearing the word “sorrow.” I don’t know how old I was, but I’m suddenly haunted by the image of a giant rabbit singing the classic Spiritual “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.” A quick Google search for “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen sing along rabbit” reveals the source: Wee Sing’s Big Rock Candy Mountain special. Click on the link. I’ll wait.

OK, now that you’ve watched approximately thirty seconds of that insane video, know that I watched eight minutes and knew every single frame. I could’ve recited every word. Shit, I probably could’ve recited it in the characters’ voices. Three hours ago, I didn’t remember this existed. Does this mean that all six hours of this will live forever in my brain somewhere? I deserve a medal for this.

Musical Highlights: There is an extended trumpet solo not long into Side D that marks the first real break in the repetition, and I want to hug it and hold it up for all to see like Rafiki marking the birth of King Simba.

1999 Chart-Topper I’d Rather Listen To: “Bailamos” – Enrique Iglesias. LET THE RHYTHM TAKE ME OVER.


Current Mood: Jack Nicholson talking to Lloyd the bartender in The Shining.

I have to leave the coffee shop. The strange cocktail of “Sorrow” and Big Rock Candy Mountain I’ve mixed myself is having undesirable effects. I’m afraid that I may be losing my faculties in ways that are not yet clear to me. I may start screaming about sorrow being a girl inside my cake, or improvise a beer bong to chug all the milk out of those portable stainless steel containers left conveniently on the counter near my table. For as little interruption as possible, I leave my headphones on as I drive home. THIS IS ILLEGAL AND DANGEROUS. DO NOT DO THIS. That said, it’s a very short drive. Near the end of Side 7, I feel an overwhelming urge to tear the headphones from my ears and, perhaps, to separate my ears from my body. I plug my iPod into my speakers. Enjoy neighbors! Thanks for unknowingly volunteering to endure the next hour or so of this hellish marathon with me. As I connect the iPod, my record collection sits on the shelf mocking me. I would listen to any one of those records with delight in this moment. That “bonus” film score that came with the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack? Throw it on. CCR’s ill-fated final album Mardi Gras? Yes, please. I secretly love that record, and I never be in a more appropriate headspace for sailing away with Stu Cook.

Musical Highlights: Real or imagined, Berninger sounds progressively more defeated in this hour. It’s said that no man is an island, but Berninger is, at the very least, a long, isolated peninsula. Even as his bandmates compensate for each other—the Dessner twins throw lead and rhythm back and forth, horn players cover keyboard parts, keyboardists cover horn parts—allowing the shortest of breaks, he has no choice but to sing the same words with the same melody, over and over and over again. The effect is devastating.

1999 Chart-Topper I’d Rather Listen To: “Kiss Me” – Sixpence None the Richer. This is a secretly great song, and She’s All That is a secretly great movie that I refuse to rewatch for fear that it won’t hold up these years later. At eleven years old, I was basically Rachael Leigh Cook waiting on the female equivalent of Freddie Prinze, Jr. to come pull down the socks I kept up to my knees, exchange my Animorphs shirt for a polo, and take me to the dance.

HALFTIME: Excuse this short break while I take a short trip down memory lane to listen to what were my two favorite songs in 1999: Smash Mouth’s “All Star” and the Sugar Ray classic “Every Morning”. These songs were the reason I asked for a Walkman for my birthday. Did I mention that I have never been cool?


Current Mood: Martin Sheen getting into character for Apocalypse Now.

I pause for what feels like two minutes while I start a load of laundry. I have to pause. Knowing that I’m halfway through only makes this worse. Am I really going to let these trying last three hours go to waste? No, no I’m not. Instead, I put the headphones back in and step outside to watch the families of geese that live in the pond near my apartment. I try to remind myself that this is a unique opportunity, a rare and beautiful gift. After all, when was the last time you immersed yourself in nature and really listened to one of your favorite songs? I mean really listened? I mean listened for Three. Straight. Hours. The geese fly away, and some shred of my remaining sanity leaves with them. I have to get out of my apartment. It’s time to pull the escape hatch.

Musical Highlights: Just over the four hour mark, there’s a spare, drumless rendition that I’m weirdly thrilled to finally hear after reading about it in my preparatory research. Yes, I was excited by a drumless version of a song that I knew was coming because I prepared to listen to said song for (so far) three hours. How will anyone ever love me again?

1999 Chart-Topper I’d Rather Listen To: Literallyanyfuckingthingelsepleasesavemefromthisself-madeprisonohmygodI’dratherlistento”MyOwnPrison”byCreedIhavetranscendedrationalthought. Did you know that Creed released their most commercially successful album in 1999? OF COURSE THEY DID.


Current Mood: Thelma and Louise taking to the sunny skies over the Grand Canyon.

I'm driving my car. I have no destination and frankly, no idea where the fuck I am. Although leaving the house and rolling the windows down has brightened my mood considerably, I can’t help but think that two-thirds is the most deceptive of all fractions. Think of a pie. Think of that pie cut into thirds. Now imagine eating the first two thirds of that pie, and knowing that you still have to eat an entire fucking third of pie. If that prospect disgusts you, you understand the bittersweet headspace I find myself in. If that prospect doesn’t disgust you, you love pie too much.

I pass a barn restaurant with a sign reading “Closed 4 Year” and a small cemetery with eroding headstones, the kind of small plot a whole family might be buried in. I almost hit a rabbit as I pass a combination bowling alley/restaurant that has seen much better days, reveling in the strange comfort I find driving through Middle America. Somewhere along the way, I pass a sign for Sleepy Hollow State Park and decide to check it out. In my efforts to turn around and head back, I end up going a good ways down a narrow dirt road with ditches on either side. Eventually I come to a small cluster of old houses with gravel driveways. The old men sitting on porches stare at me as I pull in and back out. I’m reminded of a Stephen King story I read recently in which the protagonists stumble into what appears to be a sleepy little town before discovering that it doubles as an eternal prison for dead rock stars and unknowing visitors, and I drive a little faster. I never make it to Sleepy Hollow, though not from lack of trying, and I decide to head home for a glass of red wine. I think Berninger would approve.

Musical Highlights: Berninger coughs mid-song and makes a joke about doing the song over. I laugh like I’m hearing Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip for the first time. I dare you to find a more worthy highlight five hours in.

1999 Chart-Topper I’d Rather Listen To: “Smooth” – Santana feat. Rob Thomas. We’ve done it. We’ve reached the point where I would willingly seek out “Smooth”. Situation critical. God help us all.


Current Mood: Chad Feldheimer celebration dance.

Highlights (Musical, Emotional, and Otherwise): When I return to my apartment, something strange happens. I find myself relishing each moment. Maybe it’s the wine, but the crowd, only occasionally audible throughout the performance, appears to be doing the same. There are celebratory clap-alongs and screams of “Almost there!” Even Berninger indulges the audience in a joke in a rare instance of stage banter, explaining that “this wasn’t our idea.” I find myself singing along with each word and pumping my fist with each ending. After five hours and change, some part of me isn’t ready for this to be over.

1999 Chart-Topper I’d Rather Listen To: “Save Tonight” – Eagle Eye Cherry. All we need is candlelight, you and me and a bottle of wine, “Sorrow”. Come on “Sorrow”, take this wine and drink with me, let’s delay our misery. Fuck 1999. Let’s save tonight, “Sorrow”. Bring on another six hours.


It is 6:17 P.M. EST when my iPod quits playing, and I’m not sure how to feel. The truth is, I accepted this assignment unsure of what the result would be, and I think I am still unsure. This could have all been so easy. I could have written about how I listened to six hours of the same song so that you didn’t have to. I could have pontificated on the meaning of this complex piece as though admiring it in a museum. To be clear: it is complex, and it is art. But any attempt at deciphering the motives of either Kjartansson or The National would go well beyond the limits of my introductory Philosophy of the Arts class. I can only tell you that it took me from tranquility to the verge of insanity and, eventually, to pure ecstasy. I can think of no better layman’s testament to a challenging artist and the band that was willing to answer his call.

So, do you need to listen to six hours of “Sorrow”? Will this strange emotional marathon solve your problems by the time you cross the finish line? Will it change your life? Without knowing you personally, the answer is almost definitely “Absolutely not.” But if you’ve made it this far, go to your study or your patio, to your car or to a concert and listen. Listen to your favorite songs like you haven’t listened in years. Pump your fists and sing along. You might be surprised at the result.


If is to be believed, Thomas Aquinas once said that “Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine.” With all due respect to St. Thomas, I think I’ll take my chances with some hard liquor, a long shower, and some Rae Sremmurd, AKA the pickled ginger of emotional palette cleansers. It was a pleasure, “Sorrow”, but now I think I’m ready to get over you.

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