Following saxophonist Colin Stetson, the National started with minimal introduction, no fanfare and a casual ambivalence, as though beginning a necessary rehearsal on a day when all its members had errands they were waiting to run. They opened the show with a disarmingly mellow new song, “Runaway”, that nudged an almost apologetic cloud over the eager audience. Butting heads with the blindly eager, doe-eyed crowd at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory, it seemed as though the band was grappling with the shift into mainstream popularity.
In 2007 at the Musical Hall of Williamsburg, they opened with Boxer’s “Fake Empire”, a logical choice given that they were on a promotional tour. At this 2009 show, “Fake Empire” was the last song before the encore, firmly relegating it to the status of an oldie despite its continued relevance to current zeitgeist. The song’s positioning reflected some of the bands changes in the past year and half. After the 2007 tour, the National took a break during which they released the Virginia EP, began work on the Dark Was the Night compilation, and wrote some tentative songs for an untitled album. With no new album as of yet, the current tour is without an immediate catalyst, and lyrics to “Runaway” reeked of an identity crisis—or at the very least, an energy crisis that has given way to an achy, slivery disassociation. The chorus—“what makes you think I’m enjoying being led to flood”—called to mind the idea of coping with excess and popularity, and indeed, choosing to begin with such a circuitous, regretful song sent a message to the crowd: Bring your own enthusiasm, because we won’t be supplying any.
That said, it’s in keeping with lead singer Matt Berninger’s style to haltingly and painstakingly build momentum rather than arouse enthusiasm with a burst or battle cry. But “Runway”’s defeated repetition of the line, “we got another thing coming undone” was not cavernous and uncertain, but melancholy and uncharacteristically pessimistic as well. Berninger’s recent lyrics are arguably more tinged with a disappointment and inevitability than older songs have been. The first two albums indicate fraught relationships and frustration, but Alligator, the album that put the band on the map, was an anomaly: Triumphant and empowered. Boxer, equally if not more successful, planted the seeds of a life gone awry—it more than hints at apathy, resignation, and absence.
These sentiments dominated the spacious, two-level Electric Factory, yet went largely undetected by the crowd. The National has a knack for drawing fans that fall hopelessly in love and the music lends itself to a “bring-your-own-interpretation” listening experience. Thus, the performance, muted and uneasy as it was, still elicited rapt attention and glowing faces, but very minimal dancing or bodily movement. At other shows, the Electric Factory can be a kids’ venue—rowdy, free, and viscerally transcendent. While many people seemed be consumed by the music, nobody let loose.
Perhaps it was because the band came across with a sound that was more like an orchestra than a rock group. Even on recordings, the horn section is arguably what gives the band both its distinction and its achy depth. But live, the musical layers were easier to pick out, and each individual melody seemed to stand on its own. In fact, with five core band members and three members of a touring horn section, the band has the capability to be symphonic, organic and raw, qualities that get lost in the finessing aspects of album production.
But the off-kilter, tangy friction they created was evocative rather than off-putting, and the quiet of the crowd might have been due in part to the feeling that the National was not performing songs, but having a musical conversation on stage. Still the disconnect wasn’t abrasive, unsettling or inaccurate. It was more a call for empty spaces to be filled and an invitation to have an individualized experience. And the band itself had a unique experience as well; it was most in sync when songs were played at tempos different than their recorded versions. “Brainy” was comparatively slow and lilting, and the normally forceful, manic “Secret Meeting” was uncharacteristically melodic. These two songs in particular brought unity and energy to the band.
At other times Berninger himself supplied the needed energy. Although known for sloppy antics and displays of listless rage on stage, his expressions of emotion were unusually discontinuous and erratic. More significant than his usual heated pacing and thrashing were moments when he turned his back to the audience and stood almost in homage to Bryan Devendorf’s drumming. His behavior was less manic than archly repressed—exuding the gritty, unfortunate, and evocative quality of wanting to express more than he was able.
The set list was drawn almost entirely from Boxer, with a few more popular songs from Alligator. Both new song “Buzz Blood Ohio” and old, old “About Today” made it into the encore, bridging the gap between old and new. “Vanderlylle Cry Baby”, a song from Dark Was the Night, also came towards the end. Ultimately, the band was more invested in the newer songs. With “Fake Empire” as the lost song, it felt like habit. They were not half-awake but perhaps only half-committed. With a new album in the works, there is still an uncertain future for the National that must weigh more heavily on them than the fame they have already achieved. Everything about the performance indicated that thrill of the unknown is what makes them strive and thrive.