Last night at 9:15 p.m., the five musicians who make up the indie-rock band the National emerged onstage at Barclays Center dressed like grown-ups, professionals, and Brooklynites, because that’s what they are. They’re also exceedingly polite, as evidenced by the multiple thank-yous they issued to the 15,000 or so adoring, tweeting fans who’d come to see them perform at the basketball arena built for the Brooklyn Nets and Jay-Z. Headlining a show at a venue as large as Barclays marked yet another milestone for the band, and one that took place so near to the National’s headquarters that guitarist Aaron Dessner revealed he’d even biked there.
The band started with “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” the most up-tempo number off their latest album, Trouble Will Find Me. The usually charmingly awkward front man Matt Berninger, who’s prone to half-drunkenly moseying about the stage, seemed to be frozen in place at first, singing, “I was not supposed to be here.” But as the song concluded, you could sense him settling in, pushing and pulling the microphone stand to emphasize lyrics, and when the song’s instrumental crescendo hit, Berninger began feeling his way around the stage, stopping when he found what he was looking for: a bottle of wine located near the drum set. He bent down, opened it, tossed the cork in the air, and poured himself a glass. Standing once again in front of the mike, he heard the opening chords of “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” smiled, and readied himself again. He was exactly where he was supposed to be.
If bands, like people, have an ideal age, a time their temperament suggests they always should be, then the National has always been middle-aged. This is, after all, a group that’s been making sad-dad music ever since its members were in their twenties. But now, after fourteen years of building an arena-size audience that loves them for their moroseness, they actually are middle-aged dads and they’re finally at home.
A crowd this size is nothing new for the National, whose fan base has grown steadily enough since the band’s 1999 debut that its name is a fixture of festival headlines. Their popularity exploded somewhere between 2007’s Boxer and the release of Trouble Will Find Me — the band’s sixth full-length studio album and its second to premiere at number three on the Billboard 200 — and now they’re one of the very few truly American indie acts that can fill a basketball arena with paying customers. When this level of popularity arrives, it can do a lot for musicians, but more than anything it can offer the reassurance that they must be doing something right.
For Dessner (his twin brother Bryce is also in the band), success has meant that “we could start to trust each other,” and this trust clearly carried over into the writing process for Trouble Will Find Me. Where the recording of the group’s last record, 2010’s High Violet, was famously contentious — they recorded and squabbled over 80 versions of the song “Lemonworld,” for example — Trouble Will Find Me was a breeze. “I sent my sketches to Matt,” Aaron Dessner told Under the Radar, “and immediately — well, like a day later — he would send me back a song almost completely written.”
Their renewed faith in each other was apparent last night as the band tore through almost every track from Trouble Will Find Me, a record that might not be the National’s most immediate album but could be its easiest to listen to. It doesn’t have Alligator’s angst, Boxer’s unrelieved tension, or High Violet’s confrontational nature; this is the National’s “fun” record. “Don’t Swallow the Cap” might be the band’s bounciest, most upbeat track in its catalogue, sounding like a song that could accompany an eighties movie dance scene. Even the sad songs feel lighter. But “fun” also means casual songwriting experimentation, complete with odd time signatures (for example, “Demons” is in 7/4 time, “I Should Live In Salt” is in 9/8, and “Hard to Find” is in 5/4). Aaron Dessner mentioned that Berninger was newly open to the emotional impact of techniques he may have previously rejected as “too arty or pretentious.”
Success also has a way of giving a band’s music new meaning. Repeatedly playing the same songs, like when you say that same word over and over, has a way of distancing lyrics from their original intent. It’s something I realized last night, when I heard the very familiar high-hat intro to “Sorrow.” Matt joked, “We know this song better than any of our other songs right now. We’re well rehearsed.” He was alluding to the time, back in early May, under a little white dome set up at New York MoMA PS1, the National performed a stunning and stunningly repetitive six-hour set consisting solely of the song “Sorrow” played 105 times in succession. The quintet had at first plowed through the track in workmanlike fashion, with some notes of mental dizziness and hand cramps. However, the real payoff came after six hours and five minutes, with the art experiment over, when the musicians reemerged feeling downright loopy. “We’re going to do one encore tonight,” announced the front man Matt Berninger, with a chuckle and a beaming smile. “This one’s called ‘Sorrow.’”
This ability to laugh at one’s distress and discomfort, defines Trouble Will Find Me.* A band that was once obsessed with getting older (“All the most important people in New York are 19” goes a lyric from Alligator’s “Val Jester”), can now joke about how hilariously inevitable death is (“If I die this instant / Taken from a distance / They would probably list it down / Among other things ‘round town”). Similarly, they aren’t the same guys who repeatedly screamed, “My mind’s not right” on Alligator’s “Abel” (arguably the band’s single most visceral moment); they joke about their anxiety (as Berninger sings with a wink on “Demons,” “I’m going through an awkward phase”) or simply accept it. Berninger croons on “Demons,” “Now there is no running from it / It’s become the crux of me / I wish that I could rise above it / But I stay down with my demons,” acknowledging that his flaws are just a part of him.
It’s a shift that began at those same nearby Brooklyn homes. Berninger, talking with the Grid: “Aaron has a kid now, my daughter’s four, and Bryan [Devendorf, the bands drummer] has two kids. I think things were put into perspective.” This perspective is all over the album. It’s not a secret that much of the National’s music catalogues Berninger’s romantic failings. He sang on Alligator, “We’re out looking for astronauts,” which was a metaphor for how his wife used to accuse him of searching for an “out–of-this-world person who’s a pure fantasy.” On this record that searching is gone. Last night, Matt introduced Trouble’s simple yet touching ballad “I Need My Girl”: “This song isn’t filled with clever metaphors. This song is just about missing my wife.” Where previously Berninger conveyed the tension of looming domesticity, now leaving home (to go on tour) is his worry, singing, “There’s a time to leave, there’s a time to think about / What I wanna say to the girls at the door,” on “Don’t Swallow the Cap.” Sure, the album is not free of anxiety, but it always comes back to acceptance. As he sings in “Heavenfaced”: “I could walk out, but I won’t’.”
As the album title suggests, trouble will find us, so there’s no use running away. Instead you find contentment in your sense of self. For the National that self is five square, middle-aged dudes. Berninger, talking with Grantland: “I think we always had a chip on our shoulder trying to prove that we’re cool, or something. And I think with this record, we stopped caring about that. Partly because we realized that thinking in those ways never helped us write good songs.”
After two hours of good songs, the band’s guitarists started “Mr. November,” the song that has been an encore at National shows for nearly a decade. Matt unholstered the mike and started walking toward the end of the stage. The audience screamed as they knew what was coming. Matt walked off the stage, onto the barricade, and then down into and through the audience. He strolled through most of general admission, singing “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders” and screaming the anthemic chorus “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November.” It’s his move. From 200-person clubs to 200,000-person festivals, he’s been doing it for as long as I’ve known the band, as a way of making a venue feel small, connected, comfortable — like home. With the help of his teammates and an extremely long microphone cord, last night, he succeeded.
* The changing political climate has done a lot as well. The National were never an explicitly political band, but the Bush-era colored much of their music. Boxer’s “Start a War” was not necessarily about W, but the decision to frame the song that way did reflect the times. Also, there is no better example of songs changing meaning over time than two of the band’s most anti-Bush songs Alligator’s “Mr. November” and Boxer’s “Fake Empire” later being rethought of and used by the Obama campaign.