The National: subdued, sincere, and sublime

By Aaron Brown

Today’s indie rock scene is dominated with the shrill, the blunt, the unabashed, and the immediately upfront. What else could explain the meteoric rise of donkey-voiced Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or the razor-edged emotional honesty of Conor Oberst? For an intentionally broad genre of music that exists as an “alternative” to whatever immediate gratification “mainstream” is supposed to be, it’s surprising to see so many successful indie bands riding high on poignantly prominent vocal lines or catchy beats and melodies – see, for example, the review for Peter Bjorn and John – markedly different but stylistically similar to traditional top forty. Even the wittiest and most intelligent songwriters of today’s scene – the Colin Meloys, the Win Butlers, the Hold Steady, the Cold War Kids – all rely on either unorthodoxly abrupt voices or shrill guitars as attempts to break down whatever pretenses traditionally prevented music from attaining an emotional catharsis.

The National and their lead singer Matt Berninger are proof that there is another way.

I would say that The National took the stage by storm last Thursday night at the Fine Line Music Caf in Minneapolis, except that they didn’t. The sextet didn’t need Of Montreal’s wardrobe, Ted Leo’s wailing solos, or the Flaming Lips-esque fanfare to play a fantastic show and win the hearts and minds of the crowd.

After St. Vincent opened the show with her unique combination of otherworldliness and sex appeal, The National unassumingly took the stage and began with “Start a War,” a song from their new album Boxer. It starts slowly and quietly, with Berninger’s subtle baritone lulling the audience as the song inevitably grows into and finishes as a determined anthem like every other song on their latest, critically acclaimed album.

This is not to say by any means that the National’s concert was uninspired, dispassionate, or even all that quiet. On the contrary, Thursday’s show was fantastic specifically because of The National’s spectacular use of the subtleties of Berninger’s haunting voice and the ambitious drums that set a backdrop of a grim urban world of heartfelt existentialism.

It’s been a week since the damn show, and still, with every relisten on my iPod, the songs are even more interesting, more relevant than they were live. While singing about being “mistaken for strangers by your own friends/city lights” or “fifteen blue shirts and womanly hands/you’re shooting up the ladder” the hard fought dilemmas involving those fading relationships with friends or lovers, identification with social class or age, and even political apathy are brought to life with carefully constructed motifs repeated over and over with increased enthusiasm and importance. “Stay inside until somebody finds us/do whatever the TV tells us/stay inside our rosy-tinted fuzz for days,” Berninger repeats and repeats.

As the song reaches its apex, it is difficult to decipher exactly what he means. Is he frustrated with this alienation, tired of watching the 11 o’clock news every night in some empty apartment? Euphoric with some sort of self-realization and embrace of passive nihilism? Lovingly suggesting to a girlfriend that he’s content to stay inside with her for the rest of his life?

Of course, the dissonance and overlap between these emotions is confusing and complicated in real life, and Beringer manages to capture the complexities and responsibilities of young adulthood without resorting to all-out confessional screaming. In fact, it may be The National’s unorthodox humbleness that itself leads to the “emotional catharsis” so often missed by the most ardently emotional of musicians.

Perhaps most markedly, the audience responded most enthusiastically to “undying something of adulthood.”The National played the hit single “Fake Empire” toward the end of the set, causing the audience to erupt with applause after the fantastic energy and chaos at the end of the song. Berninger afterward expressed surprise that the song became such a popular single, noting it somehow “became our [Outkast’s] ‘Hey Ya.'”

Singing beneath the city lights their songs describe, to an audience of introspective young adults who would be at home in those same songs, The National was deservedly well received. Whether The National’s music will translate to larger venues, larger shows and larger audiences is yet to be seen, but the delicate and intricate nature of emotions expressed Thursday night will serve as the perfect counterpoint to cracked out, bleating indie rockers that I – willingly and joyfully – listen to every other day of the year.