Welcoming the opening piano chords of “Fake Empires,” the National singer Matt Berninger gently rocks on his heels and stares at the stage below him. “We’re half awake in a fake empire,” he sighs, part prophet, part somnambulist, half asleep in what has become his signature yawning drawl.
My, what two years can do to a band.
The last time I caught the National, they were playing second fiddle to their opener, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The later had just exploded onto everyone’s radar and become the hottest thing in town overnight, and what had at first seemed a totally sensible bill (and order) had suddenly been inverted. Since then, the novelty of CYHSY has waned a bit, as the National have grown into a heavyweight contender all their own—a fact clearly evidenced by their five-night, sold-out residency at the Bowery Ballroom.
I recall reading a comment Berninger made proclaiming his mild embarrassment over the band’s lack of ingenuity when choosing their name. Observing the cross-sectors in the crowd this evening, though, the moniker seems quite fitting. Like Springsteen (who the band recently paid tribute to by covering his tunes at a benefit concert), the National have become a band of the people. But instead of Americana rock ‘n roll, this band’s shtick is to attain universal appeal through sincerity—disguised as non-sequitur admissions of guilt and lust of course. Eyeing the room, I see two middle-aged couples standing amongst a group of male Williamsburg scenesters in women’s jeans. Beside me, two pledges sing along with such conviction in every word that I’m sure they’ve worn out three copies of 2005’s magnificent Alligator apiece.
Berninger doesn’t get as worked up as he used to, and the songs from recent release, Boxer, posses a gentle sadness. His eye is still keenly focused on the world falling apart around him, but it’s as if he’s stepped down from his soapbox to grab some fresh air and a drink with a few friends. “Brainy” is carried by a shifting melody, as Berninger baits his lover with “You may need me more than you think you would.” The bridge to “Apartment Story”’ begs its singer to get worked up, yet he remains restrained as the guitars add a violent backdrop fuzz. Our leading man isn’t getting soft; he is just getting older, and, perhaps, a bit wiser.
Still, the band sounds as focused and sentimental as ever during the beautiful “Slow Show.” Whereas much of the material on Alligator centers on a man’s lack of accountability, “Slow Show” exposes the kink in his armor and examines the same man’s insecurities over his inability to rise to the occasion when it counts most. When he sings, “a little more stupid/ a little more scared/ every minute more unprepared,” anyone who has ever gotten six digits through a phone number before slamming it on its receiver can relate.
With this new sense of maturity comes accepting one’s responsibility, and the song tackles that theme beautifully. Halfway through, a piano breaks in with a few gentle notes, and the drums kick in like a heartbeat. Courage regained, phone back in hand, Berninger leans in and emotes: “You know I dreamed about you, twenty-nine years before I met you.” While most bands would be ridiculed for such a mailed-in sentiment, for this crowd, it’s the most touching moment of the evening. Many of Berninger’s lyrics require a cipher to interpret, so such a direct and honest confession endears him even more. He holds his arms across his chest as the audience stands before him. Half the crowd is longing to care for someone as deeply as he does, as the other half wraps their arms around the ones they love.