I've suffered a lapse in my game. I'm not sure how it's come about, and I know it's not Bobby Fischer's fault, even though it is his opening (which I even use in defense; yes, defense) so I feel he should feel empathic about this, and absorb some of the blame (he doesn't care, he's been dead for five years). The message was clear; this has happened before, and I've improved upon my mistakes and weaknesses. I needed A New Opening. So browsing some of the all time great chess matches last week, I came across Samuel Boden's famous Boden's Mate, so named after its use in Schulder-Boden, London, 1853. Not an opening, but almost unique in its conception in that it uses the opposition's pieces to beat the opposition; Boden simply supplies the finishing touch. The enemy king is hemmed in after castling with the wrong rook, and Boden's bishops simply occupy the space left in front to produce mate. Here it is: (Even better, incidentally, is Peruvian grandmaster Esteban Canal's game against an unknown amateur in 1934, dubbed by biographer Fred Reinfeld as having "the blazing quality of a Liszt improvisation.")
I don't tend to listen to music if I'm playing, as I can't diverge my concentration from one outlet to another in so great a quantity without system failure, but I think I've found the niche; The National's Boxer has been on pretty much constantly for the last three weeks, which has seen me leap a heady 300 points higher in ratings. There's this wonderful gravelly quality to Matt Berninger's baritone; it always reminds me of Underworld's final scene, when the sisters return to the slum to see the huge portrait of the murdered homeless girl, flashed into life by the spotless commuter train, packed with workers and travelling New Yorkers. It's about the colours, the time and place I guess; I seem to remember a line from a film where a guy thinks he's experiencing a special moment for the first time, only he can't be sure because he can remember all the lines before he's spoken the words. I suppose there's a sense of presentiment here, a shared moment that will come to pass as everyone knew/ remembered it would; The National have that effect on me. As though I've endeavoured to create my own directions whilst consciously forming my own cul-de-sacs, so that the only choice is the one I made for myself without making it for myself.
So to last week, when I halfheartedly watched Obama's inauguration as President; I remembered reading that The National had campaigned long and hard for this guy, playing cheap support gigs across much of the Midwest and East Coast as means of fundraising, even lending Fake Empire to the then president-elect's victory speech in Grant Park, Chicago. I guess everyone had a feeling of presentiment about this; but I guess it was much more clear cut, and logical, and romantic? than my own blind dilettante wanderings. And what happiness it gave me that a politician should recognise a song in its own right; Fake Empire has been used by Grey's Anatomy, mostly for it's stoic yet slightly weepy piano line, but the tone and rhythm were so syncopated to Obama's speech I almost wondered if the whole thing were tongue in cheek, a nod to Reagan's famously dimwitted interpretation of Born in the USA.
About 18 months down the line and I feel more like I own a piece of The National than I own anything else; clothes, some (other) good music (full of my own hopes&dreamsand thwarted desires for something I can never have) a mean left hand for chopping vegetables (I am GOOD with the carrots.) and I guess, a few whispery outlines of my own chess game, which I played obsessively when writing odds&ends for cleaning companies in Manchester but which has all but been blown away by the ever-present breeze ever since I smashed a hole in my own ambition. This last bit is both an ever-present feeling, with me paycheck after paycheck, train journey after train journey (make what you will) and also presentiment; I am not being a miserablist here but seriously, who really wants to be able to predict the future? And of course, there is another National album for me to pour myself into, apparently desperate for some sort of mould and yet sort of depressed that my heartstrings can be plucked in four minutes of American rock. I recently read the review of their latest, High Violet, which I claim in victory from everyone and then throw it back to them, because for me, this is both mine and yours in equal measure. It provides real, tenable evidence to me of someone who is prepared to sit and wait and watch for weakness, a sort of defensive pattern reminiscent historically of things I do not possess the superpowers to describe. I am not referring to weakness in other people here, but rather a weakness in life, much as a small crack in a glass will soon yield and shatter with the right amount of concerted pressure. The review in question was right to suggest that the majority of these songs are 'sad-bastard songs' - I'd argue a band who toured for ideas/ 'change', compassionate public at home&abroad and an actual sense of how things are are probably going to be sad bastards right now, and for the foreseeable future - but several outbursts, like those found in Lemonworld and Anyone's Ghost feel like a slightly skinny guy settling deep into a hard sweat. They seem to do this without the puglist attitude you'd assume would sort of go with the territory here; in fact they feel elegant and humane, a highly-fussed affair which doesn't pull any punches despite its apparently brittle nature. They have previously released albums under the titles of Boxer and Alligator, not exactly confessionals but nonetheless the sound of four guys leaning into each other and finding that amazingly, they're still standing (Matt Berninger sort of remarks on this here, and reveals what makes them tick here). Vitally, above everything HV feels like what I need now, and this is, when I get down to it, why I so admire this band. It's easy to be uneasy sometimes, so that it seems embarrassingly affecting and then of course everything else creeps in on top, but it's fine to worry, I have learnt. Worrying is sort of normal. Worrying shows you care, and that you want a way out. Better still, it almost acts as a signpost for the rest of you, and you just have to keep fucking going. Take that Springsteen.