There are music fans who claim–proudly, in the tone an illiterate peasant offered to the invention of the printing press–that they “Pay no attention to the lyrics.” The voice is just another instrument, man, so chill on the melody and don’t get tripped up on the verbal content, no matter how asinine or absurd it gets. Now, there are also perfectly intelligent people who place little focus on lyrics, and that is fine, but the general undervaluing of lyricism is what leads to a jump from literary allusions to literal come-ons; it’s how we go from Mick Jagger channeling Bulgakov in “Sympathy for the Devil” to Pharell Williams’ emotional bumper sticker “Happy.” That’s not a fair comparison, given context and intent and any number of other factors, but the point remains: pop music has largely lost what little subtlety it had, and with it, genuine lyricism.
That modifier–pop–is important, as there are still plenty of excellent writers working in all corners of the music world. When you have Kendrick Lamar spinning short stories into hip-hop hits and Sufjan Stevens fusing character studies with experimental rock, it’s hard to get too up in arms about the lack of literary substance in modern music. Among the front line warriors for proper lyricism, The National’s Matt Berninger stands as a soberer, more somber Bukowski, a bar poet given to flights of fancy and emotional gut punches with equal commitment.
Over tales of small town despair, big city isolation, and hangovers that never end, Berninger alternates between nuggets of wit, stark descriptions, and the odd metaphor to drive his point home. A student of modern minimalists, he is a brutally honest and economically worded writer in the vein of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver, giving the audience the tip of the iceberg of a sunken American dream. More important than his influences or ambitions, Berninger simply has a way with words, a seemingly effortless ability to toss off asides that become immortalized through repeated listens.
Instead of prattling on in the abstract, let’s look at a tangible example, the track “City Middle” from their 2006 album, Alligator. With the oft mentioned “Karen“–a character presumably based on his wife, Carin–by his side, Matt narrates an outing into the nearest town, laying his intentions plain with the lines, “I’ve got 500 in twenties and I’ve got a ton of great ideas, I’m really worked up/ I’m on a good mixture, I don’t want to waste it.” After the vicious imagery of “gator[ing] around the warm beds of beginners,” Berninger wraps it up with a few “weird memories” and Karen’s desperate refrain, “I think I’m like Tennessee Williams/ I wait for the click, but it doesn’t kick in.” Impressively, the songwriter manages to combine raw observation, original imagery, and a reference to a celebrated playwright in a single song that never feels forced or overstuffed.
The danger with this approach, as with any overly analytical or artistic bent, is detaching yourself from the source experience and targeted audience through over intellectualization. I would defend every Wes Anderson film as a valuable and engaging piece of art, but there are many who find his tone too dry, too verbose, and far too knowingly eccentric. In order to maintain mass appeal and pull off complete sincerity, you have to let some loose emotion show, let enough fraying at the edges to maintain the appearance of universal humanity. Not everyone can pull off alien perfection like Bowie or Beyonce, nor should they try.
A man confident in his place in the world and role on the stage, Berninger doesn’t use theatrics or gimmicks to sell his words; rather, the 43 year-old singer lays out raw hurt in screaming bursts and wins you back with an assured croon. The power–the urgency that he brings–sets their live performance apart from their recorded material, and leaves the audience with the vision of a much louder, menacing band than what the studio albums led them to believe existed. I had casually enjoyed their 2007 album Boxer, consuming it almost as one would read The New Yorker. Once I saw them perform in 2009 at Outside Lands, I was fully converted and listened to their catalog with renewed reverence.
In 2010, I saw them again, right after the release of High Violet, arguably their finest album. With more expansive tracks meant for larger stages, the material catered nicely to the festival crowd at Coachella, despite doubts that these mellow, middle-aged men could keep up with the Skrillexes and the Kanyes running amuck. There was the normal festival bleed of audience members filing in and out, bound for other sets, but the crowd was largely engaged with and appreciative of the set.
Last month, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing The National at a venue far more suited to their sound and approach: The Greek Theatre in Berkeley. Nestled into a hill on the UC campus, the Greek is a classically structured amphitheater, with sloped stone seating spread in a semi-circle before the raised stage. Not only does this make for impressive acoustics, but the 8,000 people gathered all seem close enough to the stage to surround the artist in humanity, the perfect environment for a band that so naturally plays to the people.
On the stroll through academic halls to the venue, I tried to relate a humorous anecdote to my photographer, only to recall the scent of the story, not the meat. The authorities separated us at the gate, giving him a personal escort to the photo pit and leaving me to general admission. We’d arrived late, towards the end of opener Portugal. the Man’s set, and most of the crowd had already filed in and reserved their long-term positions. I settled with a snake through the raised steps to stage left, landing about 50 feet from the stage.
Then, the lights dimmed and the screen filled with grainy black and white tour footage, of The National walking through countless backstages, on their long road through the world, all the way to here. The band themselves arrived to a roar from the crowd, Berninger took the mic with a humble, “Good to be back,” and they launched into “Don’t Swallow the Cap” from their latest release, last year’s Trouble Will Find Me. From the start, the crowd responded with rapture to every guitar squall and impassioned lyric, feeding the band’s most arena-ready movements and postures.
The first, starkest difference in performance was the confidence displayed by both Dressner twins, Aaron and Bryce. They have always been talented musicians, but their newly developed plays to the crowd and solo stances speak to a tour-hardened ability to really let loose on stage–in their own, still reserved way. Admittedly, I’d forgotten which brother was which, so I referred to them by hair style, diminutively deeming Aaron “Poofy” and Bryce “Shaggy.” While that may not be the path taken by more respectable journalists, I’ll be damned if I’d let herbal addled memory derail note taking.
They hit full force with a rousing rendition of “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the stage glowing blood red as the song rollicked along. Two tracks later, “Sea of Love” upped the energy and the band reached another level, filling the amphitheater with lush guitars, driving rhythm, and commanding vocals, presenting what I scribbled down as a “Thinking Man’s U2.” [To be fair to U2, they were once the Thinking Man’s U2, but their current iteration resorts more to adrenalin fueled non-sequiturs, vague stabs at spirituality, and calls to crisis than anything that requires intelligence to process. My father would contend U2 still deserves the title, but he’s also big into the Counting Crows’ late work, so take it well seasoned.]
More remarkable than imbuing an already rocking track like “Sea of Love” with energy, The National was able to make the softer, more somber songs soar with the same vitality. On the record, a track like “Hard to Find” doesn’t seem like it’ll be any great shakes live, but the band managed a deep resonance with their orchestral swells, throwing their shoulders into every subtlety and bringing the whole soundscape to life. The two-man horn section was an indispensable addition to the touring outfit, hammering home choral punchlines and adding breathy atmosphere to slower numbers. Overall, despite its often low BPM and fragile construction, The National’s work sounded downright impressive live.
Every member played their part to a tee, from the Dressners‘ dueling guitars to the Devendorf brothers, Bryan and Scott, holding down the rhythm section at drums and bass, respectively. In an appropriately democratic distribution of duties for the setting, every member contributed backing vocals at various times, lending the more anthemic tracks a collective voice and providing a diverse splash of vocal colors to offset Matt’s booming baritone. While everyone’s musicianship was highlighted, with a frontman as potent and engaging as Berninger, the focus inevitably remained with the lead microphone.
Like his bandmates, the frontman savored the quieter moments, but he truly came to life when he hit full volume. On harder songs, like Alligator’s “Abel,” he gripped the microphone stand like a crutch and leaned into it, screaming out hurt and rage and straight catharsis. Pacing the stage like an apprehensive predator, coming in for the kill at the chorus, he would turn and yell into the void or wield the stand like a staff, holding the audience’s attention with every fevered motion. When he repeatedly roared, “My mind is gone,” I could only nod and stare.
Most performers with this much crowd control rely on a hefty amount of banter, but Berninger stuck to the bare minimum, only introducing the occasional song and offering the shortest of observational sides. Though his humor–when delivered–was well received, it was hard to complain about ceding more time to the masterful music being made.
Towards the end of the set, they made a trend of turning quiet fade outs into triumphant endings, tacking epic codas to slow burners like “Santa Clara” and “About Today” instead of letting them go gently. To close out the evening, they turned Boxer highlight and Obama approved anthem “Fake Empire” into a group sing-along with full bore horns and guitars pushed into overdrive. Matt Berninger thanked the crowd, introduced the horn section, and the band left the stage.
During the break, I wrote in my notes, “What’s left to play?,” contented by the evening already. After a moment of thought, I scribbled two exclamation marks and “Mr. November.” I was intent on hearing the most furious, driving song of their catalog, the highlight every time that I’d seen them. When they returned to the stage, they warmed up with “Ada,” capped by a horn part cribbed from Sufjan Stevens’s “Chicago,” before launching into my premonition and tearing the whole venue right open.
At both Outside Lands and Coachella, Berninger was unable to wade into the crowd due to logistical constraints, a move I had no idea he held. For a few choice songs through the night, he staggered through the audience, screaming and slurring without missing a syllable, but the most memorable came with “Mr. November.” Stretching the mic cord past reasonable predictions, he moved up through the middle and into higher ground, singing and shouting and roaring, passing five feet behind me and almost swinging the tailing cable into me–not that I minded. I was too engaged in the breathtaking and brutal performance underway, the kind of raw emotional energy that can only be channeled through some connection with another force–some deep strength within yourself, or entirely removed.
To try and swing my favor, they followed up with “Terrible Love,” which led me to write that it “may top” my entrenched preference. The final number was an acoustic take on “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” performed without microphones. I have seen far more failed than successful crowd sing-alongs, and this proved to be one of the higher participation ratios I have observed. Even though it was a lovely and fitting way to close the show, I replied snarkily with, “Did they take the mic away from him?”
On the way to the car, I took it a step further, suggesting to my photographer that someone should introduce him to wireless.