Best Song Ever: Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks

Being relatively out of the modern musical loop, I come to The National’s latest album, High Violet, with no preconceptions – this is my first encounter with the band, and perhaps it says a bit too much about my age that I connect with the group not through whatever hipster cred they may carry, but because they come across as sonic cousins to a certain flavor of moody 1980s alternative that filled my youth.

High Violet

But even without the retro comparison, High Violet is an album that floors me with every listen as it builds to its devastating finale: “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” It’s a wallop of a closer, a haunting melody (credited to Matt Berninger, Carin Besser, and Aaron Dessner) built on orchestration that’s at once sweeping and subdued, the sort of hauntingly catchy (catchily haunting?) tune that’d be right at home on a Sigur Rós record, layered around aching, restrained vocals from lead singer/lyricist Berninger. It’s the sound of being completely lost in a sea of mental fallout.

The lyrics are intentionally vague, and Google offers no help – websites can’t agree on what words are being sung here, while message boards remain riddled with debates on what, if anything, is happening in the song’s story. The internet’s lone revelation is that Berninger once explained in an interview that “Vanderlyle Crybaby” is a character’s name, and that “Vanderlyle” is a three-syllable concoction existing nowhere in the real world. A separate interview shows the singer expressing his preference for opaqueness: like early R.E.M., the vocals blend in with, and become part of, the music itself, while the listener may interpret words anyway he or she sees fit, bringing one’s own experiences to what becomes a personal translation.

So it would be foolish of me to state with clarity what the lyrics mean; for me, they change with each return visit. But I can at least praise them for the way they paint a sort of expressionist view of emotional isolation. Consider the mid-song chant of “All the very best of us / String ourselves up for…” The word that ends the line is murky: it could be “the” (which leaves the sentence brilliantly, frustratingly unfinished), or it could be “them” (which adds a bitter taste – are “them” worth the stringing up?), or it could be, as some websites state, “love” (which sorta fits but seems far too simple a solution). Either way, it reminds us we’ve all been crushed before.

“The waters are rising” invites images of tears, rain, a dangerous storm – anything, really, that stirs up thoughts of inescapable sadness. One can even go further to suggest “string ourselves up” and “hanging from chandeliers” hint at a tale of post-suicide.

If so, it may have been an unnecessary one. Whatever pain this “Vanderlyle” person is hoping to escape, it’s water under the bridge, so to speak. “Man, it’s all been forgiven / The swans are all swimming” imply the end of a storm, not the middle, all things returned to normal in everyone’s eyes except for the title character’s, who may be unable to escape his memories. Our narrator is burdened with the chore of communicating between “Vanderlyle” and his friends; he’s left (his circle of friends? the city? his life?), and the narrator appears to understand: “I’ll explain everything to the geeks.”

Is the singer belittling the title character’s pain? The character’s name is an insult. The “Crybaby” refrain is an obvious slap, while “Vanderlyle” is the sort of posh moniker an upper crust spoiled brat might have. The opening lyrics come off as empathetic to his plight (“Leave your home / Change your name / Live alone”) until the fourth line (“Eat your cake”) implies the depression is little more than snot-nosed whining. The swans and chandeliers of the lyrics can then work in upper class connotation – no pigeons or cheap ceiling fans for these folks – and “the geeks” could be those friends to whom “Vanderlyle” feels smugly superior. Yeah, yeah, you go have your crying fit, I’ll go hang out with the rest of the losers.

It’s a sort of all-purpose feel-bad song, underlining your blues if you want it to, wryly mocking the same blues if you want an extra dose of loathing (self- or otherwise).


11 thoughts on “Best Song Ever: Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks

  1. Abdulmohsen says:

    I loved your translation of the song. The mysterious lyrics and the great voice and melodies of this album give a special flavor that made it one of my favorite albums.

  2. Nick says:

    Great piece. Vanderlyle sounds like a district of New York to me, never having been to the city. You should listen to their other work, Boxer is one of my favourite albums.

  3. Nart says:

    You must check this out if you like this song. Unforgettable evening yesterday. The waters were rising, that’s for sure.

  4. Mark says:

    For some reason, I always thought Vanderlyle was a newly divorcee contemplating suicide. Either way, I greatly enjoyed reading your opinion.

  5. Muff says:

    Think this album like their previous albums will just keep get better and better with each listen, the first 4 lines feel so familiar to a recent situation that cause me to interpret the song as a bit of a break up song.

  6. rockstarkp says:

    The song title is typical of the made-up names the National give to many of their songs. Frontman Matt Berninger told The Quietus:
    “Inventing, yeah. Like ‘Squalor Victoria’ – there’s something in that word that sounds like something because every time you actually try to use real words to describe it, it doesn’t sound like the thing you’re talking about anyway.
    This character, Vanderlyle Crybaby – I can’t tell you how long it took me to come up with the word ‘Vanderlyle.’ There’s the Nirvana song, ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ – just the word ‘pennyroyal’ I loved, it sounded so great and it’s just the name of a tea. I couldn’t use that – maybe I should have, that would have saved some time – and so I started looking at the rhythm of the word, and the cadence. I probably have a book of a hundred different three syllable things.”

  7. annie424 says:

    I love this post !!!! very good! congrats!!!

  8. eugenia says:

    I love your article! The first time I listened to this song it reminded me of the same feeling I had when listening to Dido’s Isobel….just less obvious, a bit more deeply nostalgic and so more painful! I love The National, even though I discovered them only recently. Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks is something words cannot describe…sublime! Check out this version with Justin Vernon from Bon Iver….

  9. thank you for the great interpretation! Your first sentence explained my own situation aptly (having come out of the 70’s & 80’s scene). In my feeble attempt to keep up with today’s top tunes, I came across this song and naturally fell in love with it, but why? what did it mean? what was it trying to say that made it so appealing to me? As you said, Google was of little help with the exception of the discovery of your post. You made an instant connection to my understanding, from a generational perspective that’s more akin to my own.

  10. ed says:

    My honest interpretation of the song was firstly catharsis. It represents to me the end of social struggle, and I related the vanderlyle to a college institution. It feels like pressure was released from the listeners at this part of the song… “vanderlyle crybaby cry” isn’t meant to we insulting to me because its not like Matt as a lyricist is immature. To be immature at this point in the album is to me to be taken very lightly compared to how the rest of the album was dark and very thematically and engrossed in these heavy themes where dark things happen in the lyrics and the music.I think by saying cry baby cry he’s hinting towards this but literally he means its okay to move on. It could be the fact that most of us aren’t necessary afraid to move on but afraid to trust ourselves to do so and that results in the need to cry. The experience I get from this song is personal and I feel it could be written for anybody honestly…

  11. Mandalyn X says:

    this is a great interpretation. i really hope that you have had a chance to see them live since you wrote this – they use this as the show closer, a capella, and it’s pretty much a heart-wrencher/perfect end.

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