I can’t talk about The National without putting my hand over my heart. Boxer runs second to OK Computer on my list of albums that kill me (in a good way). The National doesn’t quite have the depth of Radiohead yet, but they occupy and bear mentioning in the same emotional, catharsis-inducing territory. Frontman Matt Berninger’s resonant Leonard Cohen-esque voice instantly distinguishes The National from other emotional alterna-rock bands such as Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, and Radiohead.
Berninger’s voice holds up impressively live, although he clips the ends of his words and staccatos the lyrics, rather than letting them stretch over the music, which makes them difficult to understand. Berninger plays the dutiful hipster frontman, clad in a sportsjacket, skinny jeans, and a tie, an ensemble that belies the depth and tenor of his voice. He also keeps a bottle of white wine on ice during the show.
Despite performing at Boston’s House of Blues, a venue perfect for bands that employ visuals and entourages, The National is anything but a spectacle. When they play live, they rely on old-school rocking and a bit of crooning to enrapture the audience. The May 23rd show sold out, and the crowds (especially in the bathrooms) forced the facility to open the usually-private third floor to the public. The sound quality on the third floor is noticeably better than that on the second floor, due to the way the second floor is sandwiched by the low ceiling of the balcony. Watching The National from above felt particularly appropriate, like looking down on something simple and beautiful that you don’t want to disturb. Other than the occasional communal sway, the sea of people below me stood still, and I imagined them holding their breaths for the same reason.
The trajectory of the concert mirrored the trajectory of the best National songs – a modest beginning, then a slowly building tension that crescendos into musical heartbreak, with the occasional mend. Watching them live, it became evident that this momentum rises largely on the back of the drums. Concert highlights, such as Fake Empire and Squalor Victoria, would have floundered in mediocrity without the skins. With each album, The National’s drummer, Bryan Devendorf, who switched between drumsticks and soft mallets in almost each song during the show, creates a rhythmic through-line that opens space for Berninger’s vocals and lyrics.
The National knows its fan base well. They played a couple new songs off an as yet unnamed album, but they primarily stuck to classics from Alligator and Boxer, such as Mr. November, Green Gloves, and Secret Meeting. Berninger didn’t interact much with the audience, but he did dedicate Slow Show to a guy who recently proposed to his girlfriend, only to get dumped by her soon after and, of course, bump into her at the show with someone else. The anecdote illustrates the appeal of The National – dumpers and dumpees can’t help but recognize the sounds of love fleetingly gained and permanently lost. I was surprised to look around and see men of all ages singing you know I dreamed about you for 29 years, before I saw you. The amount of testosterone in the audience is a testament to The National’s resonant, but never whiny, synthesis of emotion and music.
Fake Empire brought the house down for precisely this reason. The guitar and drums drove on, faster and faster, while Berninger built heartbreak verse by verse. Initially, it’s almost as though there were two songs being played, like someone learning to juggle with each hand separately. Bit by bit, the lyrics and melodies and rhythm layered and merged into a perfectly balanced and choreographed toss and catch, ending in musical transcendence that transfixed us all.