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Better Than: Most of what I associate with the term “arena rock”
On May 21st, the National played three New York shows of increasing size to celebrate the release of their new album Trouble Will Find Me. It started with a lunchtime set at the Ditmas Park bar Sycamore, continued with an evening stop at Public Assembly, and concluded with a packed show at Mercury Lounge. The choice was no accident. Speaking to a room of diehard fans, the band reminisced about the importance of the Mercury Lounge, a small but famous venue that holds about 250 people. Frontman Matt Berninger recalled how they played there over 10 years ago and nobody came. It was a funny way to celebrate: return to a place you mark as an important but also embarrassing part of your rise, around the time you have perhaps reached the peak of your powers.
The Trouble Will Find Me rollout continued last night, as the band more or less officially kicked off its tour by playing their biggest non-festival show to date, at Brooklyn’s still new-ish Barclays Center. The idea of the National playing an arena at once feels utterly foreign and as if it’s the logical culmination of a slow-building, years-long climb. Since at least 2007’s Boxer but maybe since 2005’s Alligator, writers have described the National as utilizing big, arena rock choruses and instrumental swells, which always seemed like a strange assertion. Sure, the band favored a template epic enough to fill big spaces. They start quiet and restrained and frequently end in dramatic, cathartic bursts, whether in the form of Berninger’s screams, or the ever-intensifying intricacy and propulsion of Bryan Devendorf’s drums, or the carefully interlocked arpeggiating of twin guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner tumbling into distorted downstrokes as–given their general absence in the National’s music– emphatic as thunderclaps. Songs from Trouble Will Find Me and its predecessor, 2010’s High Violet, in particular are structured that way; older material gets ripped open live and tagged with the fierce release the band often withheld on record.
But even with all this, it was a brand of anthemic indie that felt right for a big theatre or club, not really an arena. There is something that always feels intimate about the National’s music, the codas erupting out of Berninger’s measured vocals and personal themes. This is still not really music that’s seeking the rafters, and while to some this moment always seemed inevitable, it’s still odd to think that this is what qualifies as arena rock now. The band may realize this, and seemed to behave with a mixture of a wry smile and wide eyes. Early on, Berninger echoed a heartfelt statement he had uttered at Mercury Lounge two weeks ago, sardonically turning it on its head to describe Barclays Center: “We’ve played about thirty-five venues in and around Manhattan, but this was always our favorite. This is where it all started.”
Berninger’s quips were deflections, though, as there were no wry smiles about just how much the band rose to the challenge of making themselves arena-size, and just how well they succeeded. Somewhat predictably, the setlist was tailored to showcase the new album, which happens to also mean–in addition to there being lots of High Violet–it was tailored towards the side of the National that some always felt was ready for the arena. Stretching the show length to just over two hours (roughly 20 minutes more than the longest show I’d seen them play in a club, 40 minutes more than what you could expect as the typical length of their shows), the band played in front of a giant screen that flashed amorphous imagery and filtered, blown-up feeds of them playing. Standouts from Trouble Will Find Me acted as markers, the new wave pulse of “Don’t Swallow the Cap” opening the show and the emotive, violin-assisted “I Should Live In Salt” a perfect encore starter. They invited their friend and collaborator St. Vincent (who is now blonde!) onstage for “This Is the Last Time.” “Graceless” was rougher and wilder than its album counterpart, a breakneck five minute spree of quintessential National-ness towards the end of the main set.
The High Violet stuff, if this was possible, somehow sounded more emphatic. Maybe the mics on the horns were cranked, maybe they had tweaked the arrangements, but songs like “England” felt absolutely massive. The paranoia of “Afraid of Everyone” boiled over into a louder roar of guitar noise than usual. Earlier material, as well, was deployed strategically, whether in the anxious pull of “Squalor Victoria” or the way the towering live version of “About Today” was resurrected–seemingly just a bit truncated–for an airing right before “Fake Empire,” rather than around the show’s conclusion. The cumulative effect was the sense that the band was savvy about which of their elements were to be stressed to fill this space, a recognition that Berninger’s incantatory melodies and eschewing of Bono-like crescendoes meant that his role as an arena frontman is to guide the band along to the big instrumental breaks, that the release of the last minute of a National song was their version of a sweeping arena chorus.
Coming off the success of High Violet, this feels like a transitional time for the National. With that album being the zenith of a certain element of their sound, Trouble Will Find Me has moments of both experiment and refinement. This sense, too, extends to seeing the National in a new live setting, as they break new ground by playing to their strengths. As the final refrain of “Terrible Love” faded, the band returned, despite being out of time, unwilling to let this experience go just yet, to play an acoustic, minimally miked version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” It was a trick they’ve pulled before in a theatre expanded out to have over ten thousand people singing along, drowning them out. When it was over, a writer friend turned to me and said, in awe, “How about that ending?” And he was right, it was a perfect National moment, subtle in its blend of showmanship and intimacy, a fitting conclusion. But it also felt like the beginning of something else. This is where it all started.
Overheard: “I lost 10 pounds on the ‘Conversation 16’ diet!” [Note: a song about eating brains]
Random Notebook Dump: Let’s hope the National never, ever stop playing “Squalor Victoria.”
Critical Bias: High Violet had a major impact on me during my freshman year of college and my first year in New York. The day Trouble Will Find Me came out, the day I attended the Mercury Lounge show, was the day I graduated college. The Barclays Center show marked the moment where I may be leaving New York for some time. So, yeah.
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Mistaken For Strangers
Sea of Love
Afraid of Everyone
I Need My Girl
This Is the Last Time
I Should Live In Salt
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks