No one knew quite how to react Tuesday night when Matt Berninger, frontman for Brooklyn quintet the National, started hopping around maniacally on one foot and screaming My mind is not right! My mind is not right! My mind is not right!, addressing this violent proclamation largely to the ceiling. This is unsettling opening-act behavior. The sold-out crowd, ultimately gathered here at Harlem’s luscious United Palace Theatre to see the almighty Arcade Fire, regarded Matt with amusement and concern. The screaming, we’d mostly expected, My mind is not right! being the relentless chorus to “Abel,” one of the catchiest (and loudest) songs on the National’s excellent ’05 record Alligator. The hopping though—strange. Especially since “Abel” came early in the set, and Matt precariously wobbled and bounced through every song thereafter, mostly quieter, calmer, subtler, more piano-driven affairs. The effect was disorienting.
“Is he hurt or something?” demanded the woman next to me. Huh. Either that or it was an artistic flourish, some sort of metaphor—a political statement about American isolation—perhaps.
Perhaps not. “I actually tripped over myself—my microphone stand,” Matt admits the following afternoon, having hobbled from Radio City Music Hall (where both the National and the Arcade Fire would perform again that evening) to a nearby café. Matt considered lying about this, passing it off as an homage to Michael Stipe, or maybe Jethro Tull. Why bother, though? “I probably looked like an idiot,” he says, resigned. “That’s showbiz.”
“I thought you were really drunk, and you fell down and you couldn’t stand up,” admits bassist-guitarist Aaron Dessner—one of the National’s two sets of siblings (his brother Bryce and Bryan and Scott Devendorf round out the band)—as they reflect on the show. “I was about to get angry, like, ‘C’mon!’ ”
“I think Bryan at one point was like, What are you doing?” Matt recalls. “I had tears in my eyes—’I’m hurt!’ ”
Bryan, meanwhile, evidently had snare-drum issues. Matt and Aaron don’t seem too happy about Tuesday night’s set. Opening-act ennui, maybe. Or perhaps they were dwarfed and intimidated by the United Palace Theatre—a frilly monster of a venue, considering the National, Cincinnati expats and longtime Brooklynites all, once regarded selling out the Mercury Lounge as the pinnacle of success. Consider also that they’re opening for the Arcade Fire, a cultural phenomenon in full orgiastic arena-rock bloom, with enough joyous spectacle and grandma-throttling enthusiasm to make Justin Timberlake look like Leonard Cohen.
Any band in such a delirious environment would look tremendously subdued. And the National are already profoundly laid-back guys: Although near set’s end, Matt hopped menacingly through “Mr. November,” the band’s loudest (and finest) song to date—this time directing screams of I won’t fuck us over! I’m Mr. November! I’m Mr. November! I won’t fuck us over! at the ceiling—the band mostly favors intricate, slow-to-mid-tempo, almost funereal barroom laments. Bukowskian, but benevolent, and in slow motion. Like the Arcade Fire, there’s more than a touch of the Boss at work here, but whereas the headliners channeled fist-pumping, crowd-elating Springsteen, the National preferred the bummed, beery, forlorn flipside. “By comparison, we’re pretty dismal,” Aaron says. Like Nebraska opening for Born to Run.
Springsteen evidently loves the National, by the way. “We hung out with him one night after this Nebraska tribute,” Aaron recalls. “One thing he talked a lot about was, as your audience grows, you’ve gotta figure out how to play to the people in the very back, standing up. I remember thinking, ‘That’s pretty irrelevant advice for us right now.’ I think he had a skewed idea of how big we are. Now it’s all coming true.”
“He gave U2 the exact same advice he gave us,” Matt adds.
“You gotta create the wave, and then you gotta ride the wave,” Aaron explains, stifling a giggle.
“Bruce was under the impression we were pretty huge,” Matt concludes, not stifling a giggle. “Still good advice. Someday we will have an opportunity to use it.”
That joke just isn’t funny anymore. All told, the National spent about a week as the Arcade Fire’s kindling in giant sheds—from where he’s sitting, Matt can see the Radio City marquee, a sight he once only enjoyed while watching TV or Woody Allen movies. Both bandmates demur and say they prefer smaller crowds, more intimate venues. Fair enough. But Alligator was a huge slow-burn hit with critics and fans, thus stoking a huge anticipatory demand for the follow-up, Boxer, out next week. Some folks—and by some folks, I mean, at the very least, me—suspect the National could be the next huge indie-arena success story, following the same exhilarating trail blazed by the Arcade Fire, the Shins, and Modest Mouse. But even superfans are somewhat shocked at how intense that anticipation has gotten: At the end of the month, the National will headline five consecutive sold-out Bowery Ballroom shows. Monday through Friday. A full work week. That’s Sufjan Stevens/Bright Eyes kinda shit. Suddenly, Springsteen doesn’t look so deluded.
This is unexpected and wonderful and slightly odd, considering Boxer itself doesn’t attempt anything terribly anthemic or orgiastic. It doesn’t act like a triumphant, overreaching breakout record—no one track leaps out at you with the vicious force of even “Mr. November.” Instead, rising above the intricate multi-guitar tapestries that made Alligator so memorable, lilting piano takes the lead here and runs throughout an album best taken all at once, in one sitting—a dangerous proposition in the single-download age. Its climactic centerpiece is the deceptively titled “Anthem,” a shy, hands-in-pockets lullaby with a lovely coda that finds Matt, in the resonant baritone that defines him the 98 percent of the time he’s not screaming at the ceiling, purring, “You know I dreamed about you/For 29 years/Before I saw you.” To put it in Springsteenian terms, this all isn’t dismal enough to be Nebraska, exactly, but it rocks no harder than, say, Tunnel of Love.
Which is fine, which is fine. It’s a grower, from a band that seems to specialize in growers. Alligator didn’t catch fire immediately; Matt notes that a few publications gave it mediocre reviews initially, only to circle around months later with much louder, much more favorable opinions. Boxer, too, may take a while to settle in. This is by design. “The songs we end up getting the most attached to when we’re making a record are the ones that grew on us,” Matt says. Aaron is even blunter: “We usually throw out the catchiest ones, because they sound like we were forcing it.”
“Often the songs that are immediate for us, that are immediate and catchy, they’re appealing because they’re familiar in some way,” Matt explains. “Those songs, after three or four listens, they lose their shine. They don’t hold our interest as much. It’s the odd ducks that stick with us.”
That oddness is doubly true of the National’s lyrics—Matt is prized for a bizarre, non sequitur sensibility that results in opening lines like “They’re gonna send us to prison for jerks.” And though Boxer song titles like “Fake Empire” and “Start a War” suggest a blatant, Bright Eyes sort of political screed, in reality Matt tries to set societal calamity in the background this time: something on the TV, something his characters wish to disconnect from and avoid. The term he’s settled on is “fuzzy-headed.”
The Radio City marquee looms just outside as he explains this, of course. Playing there—the elaborate pageantry of it all—gives him a queasy Miss Saigon sort of feeling, he jokes. Like or not, though, as subtle as the National tries to play it, a spring awakening seems to have already begun.
The National play Bowery Ballroom May 28 through June 1, sold out as hell, boweryballroom.com.