A debut solo album from Matt Berninger, the singer and lyricist of Ohio/Brooklyn band, The National, has been resonating with echoes of Brooklyn-very-east – aka France – in recent days. (You can read my review of Serpentine Prison here)
At the end of that review I speculated on what those songs would be like live, which, naturally, got me thinking about The National live, and that led to this review of a first encounter in a Sydney theatre in the earliest days of 2011.
They were to do bigger shows, more spectacular ones in some ways – such as at the Sydney Opera House in 2018, but this one, where the words transcendent and life-changing didn’t seem out of place, won’t ever lose its lustre.
Enmore Theatre, January 7
I'm not sure what time it was, for I had long past thought to check my watch, to break the spell by looking away.
But I do know it was at the end of the show, this breathtaking show, when electric guitars had been replaced by two acoustics, and the microphones, keyboards and drums were set aside as The National, including their two brass/other instruments/vocals extras, stepped to the lip of the stage and began singing.
Well, actually, we all were singing.
Some, like the sweat drenched 40something man in front of me and the high pitched, trembling teenage girls behind me, with heads back and throats wide open to the Enmore ceiling.
Others with eyes fixed on the stage and probably no sense that their mouths were moving, lost in the communal pull of what was, thanks in part to cheapskate inadequate air conditioning in a city where heat and humidity are not unknown, some kind of alternative music sweat lodge.
We were singing Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, a song whose tongue twisting title gives no indication of its soul shifting contents which reach their apogee when singer Matt Berninger, leaning slightly forward, unconsciously reaching out, wrenches out the lines “all the very best of us, string ourselves up for love”. In this moment, in this atmosphere it seemed like nothing but profound truth.
Now while the National are modern exemplars of the torch song, that heart-on-the-line/all to be risked style usually given to ‘50s balladeers, they are anything but lounge. With the Dessner brothers Bryce and Aaron on guitar they can score like a Japanese blade into pork skin. Best of all though, with the Devendorf brothers Bryan and Scott on drums and bass, the National have muscular swing which imagines Joy Division and the Cure as Midwest rock bands backing Scott Walker.
The combination is both powerful and fluid: driven from the floor but floating above; solid in its centre but loose around the joints.
Somehow this feels like dance music even as it begins to tear small strips of heart via Berninger’s words - “I figured out what we're missing/I tell you miserable things after you are asleep”. Somehow too it feels like rock music of the most visceral kind even as we move, furtively at first, then more easily, rhythmically during songs such as Mr November.
By the time we are all singing a cappella, almost without noticing we have been lifted, been intoxicated, been .... well by now it’s clear, exhilarated.