I won’t tell a lie: There is no objective way for me to discuss The National, as they are (and doubtlessly will remain) one of my favorite bands. Ever since the release of their fifth studio album High Violet last month, I have foregone the typically endless search of new artists to stop and listen to The National’s tracks again and again. Immersed in the multi-layered instrumentation of the songs and the deep baritone of Matt Berninger’s vocals, I often find myself unable to articulate just why I love this band so much. But of course, I will try.
Although The National was formed over 10 years ago, High Violet represents the group’s breakout from indie to mainstream. On the heels of a detailed write-up, The New York Times also chose to stream the album a week before its release on May 11th. Boxer had managed to perk the general public’s interest and by the time High Violet began to draw press, everyone was paying attention.
With an increasing amount of focus placed on indie music these days, there is always the constant debate over whether such acclaim will make or a break a band. Will the music suffer? Will the band forgo or drastically alter their sound now that they have acquired a wider audience? Part of what keeps drawing me back to High Violet is the fact that it is still the same band I have come to know and love. The National remain as endearing, melancholic, and fraught with anxiety as ever.
If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, I suggest you set aside assumptions for a moment. The National tend to make music for quiet moments, articulating feelings that can often be difficult to reflect upon. Listening to one of their albums is often as cathartic as it is taxing; an experience both pleasurable and gut-wrenching. Therein lies the inherent dichotomy that makes the band so fascinating.
They themselves alluded to this last night on stage at Radio City Music Hall when halfway through their set, they launched into “Available” off Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. “We know you guys come to listen to the pop hits,” joked Aaron Dessner, “But we wanted to play you a sad song.” On stage, the group is much more comical, and also a great deal more aggressive, than the persona of their albums. Berninger was often hunched over his mic, screaming lyrics out into the crowd. He turned the end of “England,” a slow plaintive song off the new album, into a desperate cry by howling, “Cause we’re desperate to entertain!” instead of merely singing the lyric. The culmination of his performance was when the band encored with “Mr. November.” Their lead singer preceded to climb up one side of Radio City Music Hall into the mezzanine, where members of the audience joined him in the expletive chorus, and then back down the other side, before returning to the stage.
But Berninger’s rousing showmanship was not the only great surprise of the night. Suddenly he turned to stage left and asked the audience, “Who’s that girl?” Annie Clark (who plays under the moniker St. Vincent and just happened to make Actor, my favorite album of 2009) walked out and joined The National on the piano for “Vanderlylle Crybaby Geeks.” Just when I thought I could not get any more ecstatic, Sufjan Stevens came onstage to stand beside Ms. Clark and proceeded to sing back-up on “Afraid of Everyone.” Once the song was over, the two performers waved to the crowd as Berninger lovingly stated, “I hope those kids are gonna make it.”
With a show that started off with “Mistaken for Strangers” and ended with one of the newest singles “Terrible Love,” the set list was fairly heavy on tracks off Boxer (standard favorites “Brainy,” “Slow Show,” “Apartment Story,” and “Fake Empire” were all included last night) and High Violet, but that was to be anticipated. None the less, the inclusion of “Secret Meeting,” “Daughters of the Soho Riots,” and “Abel” off Alligator were wonderful to hear. Especially for the long-time fans.
High Violet is out on 4AD and I cannot give it a strong enough recommendation. Please enjoy the video for The National’s latest single “Bloodbuzz Ohio” below.