We grow up with the music we love. Maybe that’s the funniest, the best, and/or maybe the very most tragic thing about music and getting older, and maybe that’s why we sometimes stop loving the things we used to love.
I resisted The National in the beginning, remembering reading a review on Pitchfork, a friend telling me the songs felt “boring” and “repetitive” (I can quote them because those words are on my online journal from the time). It didn’t happen until January 2009, as the dark hum of winter bustled between my ears, trains rumbling in the city distance, and the hidden fears of directionlessness bubbled to the surface of conscious mind. I possessed certainty about, at most, two things in my life: I would marry in a few months and I loved being close to my brother, in his house. As so often happens, the darkness reveled in me, a tangible thing; I preordered Andrew Bird’s upcoming album Noble Beast and, on a whim, exhausted the rest of my budget to buy Alligator and Boxer.
They would, quite literally, be the only albums I played in my car, on my ipod, my cd player, my computer, or any other place, for the rest of the winter. Isn’t it strange, the happenstance of things? An impulse decision changes lives.
Listen to the recent live recording of Boxer Live in Brussels by The National on Spotify:
I found something in those songs it’s not easy to explain. I could see myself in them, the life that I wanted, the life that I had planned. Or maybe the life that was planned for me. There is a tension, an almost-inexpressible thing that can be deeply felt, and The National delivered that sense of emotion, that unease, that strain. At that time in my life, I took breaks at work, writing stories in notebooks; my habit when writing is to scribble lines, phrases that stick with me or define the direction of my mind. Lyrics from Boxer litter the edges and spaces of my notes from 2009, with poems and stories containing lifted phrases that I’d stolen without awareness. Stories with shiny cities and blue-blazered princes and a hero named Victor with a heroine named Ada. I gave Boxer to at least three friends as gifts, a small portion of my nonexistent, barely above minimum wage post-college income.
And I kept buying all of their music, whenever I could, going backwards to collect Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers and the eponymous album, the EPs (gods, The Virginia EP still carries breath to my soul), and every bootleg the internet could offer. Matt’s voice continued to soundtrack the days, becoming something new and different, especially by the time Sleep Well Beast found its way to my ears. It’s not to say High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me didn’t resonate, too, but the songs on Sleep Well Beast served a new function, a tonal shift. It felt like Aaron Dessner’s fingers helmed the production, maybe, mirroring some of his other projects, but it still had the balance of intimacy and grandness The National has maintained throughout its career, all while introducing new angles on the themes they’ve always addressed.
I once introduced The National to my brother as the best white-collar rock band for white people ever to walk the face of the earth, and I’m not sure that’s any more or less correct than it used to be; I do think though, maybe, with their newest album I Am Easy to Find, they’ve introduced a new set of ideas to their songs. Carin Besser, Matt’s partner and frequent co-writer — whose voice has been present on the songs, if not actually heard, for several albums now — is finally matched by female vocalists. This change is natural but tectonic; the music, in an odd and perverse twist that is as much an indictment of my mind, becomes less a white-collar and more universal just by emphasizing the invisible voice in the back of the song. Less the white man singing sad and hopeful and angry songs and more someone engaging in dialogue about what it means to be human.
Listen to I Am Easy to Find by The National on Spotify:
Twenty years on, I Am Easy to Find slots into the top of the list of best albums already, maybe eventually surpassing Boxer for me. That’s an opinion, mind you, but it doesn’t make me wrong. The National brought I Am Easy to Find and their vast discography to The Anthem in DC on June 19, the sidewalks of the wharf already overflowing before the doors opened. The show sold out, quickly, and the crowd that filled the floors pushed closer and closer to the stage, many (if not most) knowing the just-barely-hinged wildness that Matt Berninger brings to the stage, his yawps and yells as exorcising as holy water to a flock of believers.
When they walked onto the stage, Kate Stables of This Is the Kit (who Anthem-goers may remember from the last time The National came here in December 2017) came to the center of the stage with Matt, their micstands a wingspan apart. The Dessners took their sides of the stage, and the Devendorfs held down the rhythm from the back, along with brass and backing vocals alongside them. Matt held white wine on ice in a plastic cup, evoking an updated “Fake Empire,” and they began with the new record: “You Had Your Soul with You,” as Matt and Kate’s voices layered together for the first (of many times), almost symbiotic. They followed with “Quiet Light,” its acceptance of darkness (a theme long explored by Matt) matched by an almost-orchestral quality at the song’s fading. Matt flirted with unleashing himself, tilting the mic stand, wrapping his hands around his head, furrowing his brow.
Sometimes, it’s easy to lose sight of humanity when you see it onstage, but it’s there. Right as “Quiet Light” ended, Matt walked to the edge of the stage and directed the crowd to move, to let through medics and staff. He watched, concern knitting his forehead, the band behind him mirroring his worry. He thanked the staff, praised the audience, and everyone turned out okay. And then moved onto the next song, still a bundle of barely-restrained energy.
That restraint disappeared on “The Pull of You,” the first moment of extraordinary catharsis, as Matt worked his way forward and leaned into space, hands raised, fingers pointing, screaming into the ether. The band gifted much of I Am Easy to Find to the audience throughout the night, with “Oblivions” and “Light Years” acting as further standouts. They slotted “I Am Easy to Find” as a counterpoint to the uneasiness of heavyweights “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and “Graceless” letting its oxygen fill our lungs before setting fire to the stage with “Fake Empire” (those horns!!!!) and set closer “Rylan.”
The highlights of the night, though, were undoubtedly the unexpected gifts they unwrapped. “Green Gloves” into “All the Wine” into “Brainy” into “Apartment Story” blew the fanbase’s hive mind; people looked at each other in disbelief, laughed and sang along. They followed this with set exploder “Day I Die,” when Matt often runs into the audience and sings with and among the fans, sometimes borrowing cellphones, sometimes holding the mic out for singalongs. It is as wild and as connective as anything I’ve ever seen in live music.
That, of course, was not the only surprise of the night. They played a five-song encore, opening with “Wasp Nest,” playing it for just the second time this year. The crowd reignited for “Mr. November” and “Terrible Love” before ending with future singalong “Light Years” and current singalong “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” Some cried as they sang, “all the very best of us / string ourselves up for love.”
Next time they come to DC, make sure you buy the ticket early. The National are always worth it. Here are a few more photos of The National performing at The Anthem on June 19, 2019, courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert.