The Bell House
Thursday, March 11
“We’re gonna play a couple of new songs…flawlessly,” National frontman Matt Berninger laughed, standing onstage at the Bell House last night for the first of two short-notice, “secret” shows in Brooklyn this week. Which they did. The kicker, of course, was when Berninger proceeded to forget an entire verse to 2007’s radio-friendly “Start a War.” “What? It’s an old song,” he said nervously, glass of wine in hand. Kinda. After 2007’s Boxer debuted to nearly unanimous critical praise, the National toured the album, and then dabbled in various projects (Dark Was The Night; a performance collaboration at BAM) that only served to drum up anticipation for new material. A week ago, the band finally announced their first new album in three years–High Violet, out in May–debuted one of the songs from it (“Terrible Love”) in a casual performance on late night television, and announced two shows at a 350 max capacity venue in Brooklyn that sold out in less than a minute. The crowd knew what they were getting into: mostly new material from Violet, with a few of the last two albums’ essential moments dropped between. In total, 11 new songs were played, eight of which had never been played in concert before.
Familiar new songs like the shifting horn-driven anthem “Blood Buzz, OH” played out a little louder and a little faster since they first debuted on the band’s last tour; “Sorrow” was a hazy, strung-out ballad, peaking with some delicately placed feedback on top of the repetition of an otherwise ordinary phrasing (“I don’t want to get over you”) for which their songs are now famous for. “Little Faith,” which ended in a scrum of skuzzy reverb and strings, resulted in what can only be described as a beautiful, angry, chamber-pop mess. It found Berninger trading in the low baritone standard of recent material for the hoarse screaming of earlier tracks for the first time, really, since Alligator. Get the gist?
The new sounds the band debuted are equal parts Boxer‘s quiet, long-form catchiness, opened up at the ends, paired with moments of high noise–particularly, Berninger’s screams, and the Brothers Dressner and Devendorf building distortion, space, and well-orchestrated chaos, new territories for this band. For The National’s otherwise airtight repertoire, this could fairly be considered some “next level shit.” And they’re anxious to get it down, too. To wit: throughout the night, Berninger obsessed over the band’s precise quantities of reverb and fuzz, running back and forth between the stage and the mixing board to trade notes with their sound engineer.
Still, familiar sounds got familiar reactions–the ’29 years’ bridge of Boxer‘s “Slow Show” yielded a standstill silence, which was followed by a slightly quieter re-working of “Apartment Story.” More new material emerged: “Conversation 16” is another fuzzy, static-stained track that falls on the quieter side of things, with a chorus finding the narrator being “afraid I’d eat your brains,” while “The Runaway” simmers with angry recoil: “No, I won’t be no runaway/’cause I. Don’t. Run…but what makes you think I like being led to the flood?” Themes of domestic disquiet ain’t going nowhere.
Neither, luckily, has the band’s playfulness: rousing opening notes of Alligator‘s screamy “Abel” were also the go-ahead for Berninger to let loose, climbing up on the stage’s risers, and as he’s wont to do, leaning a little too far into the crowd. By the time he hopped off the stage in the middle of “Mr. November,” sang his way through the crowd, and ended up on the far side of the room, screaming the song’s chorus while seated on a bench against the wall – “I won’t fuck us over” – it’d already become pretty goddamn evident that no, he won’t, they won’t. That’s not this band, not after this wait.
Berninger at one point toyed with the mic stand, modestly mumbling as he tried to fix it. “This one’s new. We’re just breaking it in.” He could’ve been talking about the crowd, or the new songs, or both. Whichever it was: mission accomplished.
The National plays tonight at The Bell House. Tickets are sold out.
Blood Buzz, OH*
Little Faith (Chromehorse)*
Start a War
Afraid of Everyone*