Controversial statement alert: Despite the strawberry blond beardiness of its singer, despite the suits, despite the New York theatre performances, charity efforts and relatively big marketing support for its latest release High Violet, THE NATIONAL ARE BASICALLY A MODERN GOTH-ROCK BAND. This will baffle the legion of frat boy followers who chugged their beers to the band after Boxer, but hey. I aim to perplex.
Why? Black suit jackets. Literary romanticism. Rich orchestration and arrangements. Strings. Artsy guitar. Lyrics often dark as fuck. Introspective. Bonkers stage pacing by singer Matt Berninger, prompting thoughts in the audience of “is he okay?”. Yep, The National are goth alright. Which is what drew me to them.
A few years back, shows were a bit more powderkeggy. It didn’t seem like the National actually particularly liked each other. The singer would shadow-box demons on stage. Scream. Lose it. Pace. They’d look tired. Cranky sometimes. There was an unpredictablity about the band. The arrangements were no less lush, the songs electric. The National were intoxicating because they were about to go off…though didn’t. They were compelling.
Since then, the National’s music hasn’t changed substantially – High Violet is a rightful heir to Boxer, and Boxer (darkly beautiful and a bit droney) is a bit less dirty American than Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, Alligator and their self-titled debut. The National make lovely, consistent music made twitchy by Matt’s internal dialogue. But the live shows are starting to change.
Probably overthinking this but here goes: The National seemed comfortable in their skin. Last night, in Vancouver, there was BANTER. Jokes even. Berninger smiled more. Paced less, though still pats his thighs and walks circles. The National are talented musicians. Guitars by the twin Dessners, back beat by the brothers Devendorfs and everything else by my hero Padma Newsome from The Clogs (harmonium, fiddle, keys, more), plus two horn players. The National made a full and lovely sound out in the open-air of Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park Vancouver.
But is it better to have to banter and comfort than frisson? Naturally the band would think so. Berninger made the crowd laugh. Bryce and Aaron chipped in. “So, this song, ‘Slow Show’, Berninger said, ”gets played a lot at weddings. It’s an honour to think that at a lot of weddings they hear me singing about my dick.”
He also dedicated “Daughters of the Soho Riots” to his sister in the audience. “She’s the one that just went “woooooooah!”. Bryce deadpanned: “This song (‘Available’), was from when Matt was still writing dark songs. You know, before he got all sunny and that.”
I kinda dig the kinder, gentler National. And Berninger’s clearly more relaxed. But….I also kinda miss the edge a bit. I’m not prepared to grow up yet, even if the National are.
Still, I geddit. You can’t always get what you want. And the National gave good. Which, on a night at Malkin Bowl that didn’t rain, was plenty great.
The National play a second, sold-out night in Vancouver on Sept 10 before continuing on a world tour that takes them through December. Get tour info here.
Peep the Sept 9 SETLIST
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