People who like The National – which is often, but not always, people who like emotional, male rock – tend to talk about the band from Ohio in mythical terms. Like Sisyphus, the five band members strove in vain, but unlike him they have finally come out top; they alone – friends with Steve Reich and Philip Glass and guardians of younger Brooklyn bands – have their integrity still intact; their lead singer, Matt Berninger, is Everyman. It all sounds rather overblown – but really, watching Berninger perform “Mr November” in the Radio City Music Hall, it was hard not to get caught up in the heady, momentous drama.
One minute he was on the stage; the next, he was high above the groundlings, a lone figure mounting the stairs towards the first circle, occasionally with his back
to the wall, as if clinging to a cliff face.
Having formed in 1999 (the band is made of Berninger and two pairs of brothers), it was only with Boxer (2007) that The National reached a wide audience. “Fake Empire” was used by the Obama campaign but their music isn’t the natural choice for political themes; their melodies defy catchiness and their lyrics speak of social awkwardness (“Didn’t anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?” sings Berninger in “The Secret Meeting”) and have an existential air; “Afraid of Everyone”, in which Berninger sings of carrying “my kid on my shoulders” might be a soundtrack for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This is wonderfully self-indulgent music, but it is self-knowing too.
In their latest album, High Violet, The National’s sound is darker and more ornate than ever, with Bryan Devendorf’s off-kilter drums weaving around Berninger’s baritone. Guitars and brass build in thick layers; “Bloodbuzz Ohio” brings Arcade Fire’s “No Cars Go” to mind.
At this gig, Sufjan Stevens and Annie Clark performed in “Afraid of Everyone”, but their voices – let alone Stevens’ tambourine – could barely be heard above the racket. High Violet is an album that calls for repeated listening – but The National are a live band at heart.
With fans tearing at his black jacket and black jeans, Berninger finally completed his ambitious journey around the auditorium, and made it back to the stage, where he belongs. () www.radiocity.com