No matter how The National feels about it, they’ve grown up. The Brooklyn-based band performed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Sunday, bringing the sounds of their latest album High Violet, which debuted at #3 on the Billboard charts, to a major venue in Nashville for the first time.
The past several years have seen them gain popularity and prominence. Despite having been together for a little over a decade, it feels as if only now they’re settling into the role of a well-established band. It’s a situation mirrored in their lyrics. Their 2007 release Boxer was riddled with an unlikely angst about assuming adulthood that might not be expected from a group of guys in their early 30s, but in large part, that’s what makes the sentiment poignant– uncertainty and apprehension wrapped in dense, sophisticated musical layers.
“I don’t take any responsibility for what I did in my early 30s. Kids will be kids,” wine glass-cradling front man Matt Berninger joked to the crowd.
They opened with “Runaway,” a slow-tempo tune off of High Violet, but the real tone-setter for the night was “Mistaken for Strangers” from Boxer, which came two songs later. Guitarist Aaron Dessner dead paned, “this is another urban alienation song,” and while that may be true the audience was plenty riled up to sing about “another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults.”
Immediately after came “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” High Violet’s first single. Red lights silhouetted the band, all the while Berninger gravitated back to the drum kit, bowing, kneeling, paying homage to one of the most defining features of the band. If “orchestral pop” is the best label anyone could pin on The National, then they are orchestral pop with the drums of a rock band.
In that spirit, “Terrible Love” came roaring off the stage and Berninger’s mic stand didn’t quite survive the song. The National has clearly figured out how to work the swells and intensities of their music to turn a somber, at times slow song into a reverberating, exploding catharsis.
At the end of the night, Berninger and company unplugged completely and did an acoustic version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” standing rather earnestly in front of the audience. Mixing unexplained arm movements with the wringing of his hands, Berninger sang “All the very best of us string ourselves up for love,” and, having given away the last of his bottle of wine, The National left the stage.
Read our feature on The National from the September/October issue here.