Concert Review: The National at Barclays Center: June 5, 2013
Two full hours. 24 incredible songs. Matt Berninger and his baritone voice of god, a band that had no trouble filling the arena with its sound, which felt at all times like a full orchestra … all I can say is that I was one of approximately 19,000 people in heaven last night at the Barclays Center. The National came home to play in Brooklyn and put on an arena-worthy show that was so good – so perfect in every way – that to describe it would not do it justice. Perhaps I love this band too much to do a fair recounting of the show. Instead, having seen them perform live four times now, I’m going to talk about the experience in a slightly different way.
Stereogum has a series called “Ten Best Songs” where every so often they choose an artist and one of their writers lists and explains his ten best songs from that artist. Just before the release of their new album, Trouble Will Find Me, Harley Brown listed his 10 Best National Songs. His list is primarily comprised of songs dating only as far back as the band fourth album, 2007’s Boxer. Brown explains this by saying “For many people who listen to the National, and by guitarist Aaron Dessner’s own admission, the band’s career started in 2007…. Many of the songs on The National, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, and the EPs are good […] but they’re not great, and the band itself is divided on how their earlier material should be received. Regardless, including them on this list of the National’s 10 best songs would have come at the expense of other, better songs that appeared on band’s last three albums, so no songs from those early releases made it onto this list.” In the end, he chooses one song from 2005’s Alligator, three songs from Boxer, four songs from 2010’s High Violet and two songs that do not appear on an official National release but were first played post-High Violet. In other words, 9 out of 10 songs chosen were from Boxer or later and that’s without including any songs off of Trouble Will Find Me. I am not going to argue that any of Brown’s choices are not worthy – all ten are excellent songs, as most of their more recent catalog is. On the other hand, with the live experiences shaping my appreciation for the music, especially last week’s epic show, I have a very different opinion than Brown when it comes to my top 10. (I also believe he completely misses the band’s inflection point, or when their “career started.” Alligator, without question, belongs in the group. And I think the band would agree, as evidenced by their set choices.)
Here are my 10 Best National Songs, annotated with some thoughts and photos from last night’s show:
10. “Sea of Love” (from Trouble Will Find Me)
The song from which the new album takes its title is also my favorite song on that album. It was the fourth song played Wednesday night, following huge hits “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, and yet it didn’t feel out of place or create any kind of letdown. Despite not being released as a single (yet), the crowd easily and emphatically sang along, both for the slow chorus (“If I stay here trouble will find me // If I stay here I’ll never leave …”), the building middle repeated phrase (“Hey Jo, sorry I hurt you, but they say love is a virtue don’t they?”) and finally, the larger than life power-ending (“I see you rushing now // Tell me how to reach you // I see you rushing now // What did Harvard teach you?”) which includes a rarity from the National – alternating vocals from the rest of the band. Great album track, and as proven last night, great live song.
9. “England” (from High Violet)
Until I heard England live, I had no idea of the emotional strength of this song. I suspect that you could differentiate a National fan who’s seen them live vs. one who hasn’t by whether they put England in their top 10. Brown does not, going so far as to say that “For all intents and purposes, “Conversation 16″ closes out High Violet. “England” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” can’t touch the way the Dessners’ guitar riffs keep scratching …” and so on. I admit I felt the same way my first dozen or so times through High Violet. Then I heard Berninger sing about his lost love, somewhere in England, loving their life in the rain, for over 7 minutes with a passion that overwhelmed the entire Beacon Theatre. Last week he did so again. It’s no surprise that of the songs left off of Brown’s list, England was most often (and most vehemently) cited in the comments as a terrible omission.8. “I Need My Girl” (from Trouble Will Find Me)
Before going into “I Need My Girl” Berninger said, “This one has no clever metaphors, this is just about me missing my wife.” At that moment about 10,000 women in Brooklyn wished they were said wife. I heard this song for the first time in 2011, when he played it on the High Violet tour. It was more stripped down then, having not yet been recorded in studio. I slightly preferred that version, but either way this song is unlike others from the National but belongs in the top 10.
7. “Conversation 16” (from High Violet)
A personal favorite. As good as the lyrics are in any National song, this song has one that may be favorite: “I was afraid, I’d eat your brains // ‘Cause I am evil.” Equally good live and on the album, Conversation 16 builds and builds, leading to the first time of the night (that I can remember) where Berninger allows the music to completely take him over, bending over into the microphone and letting his baritone singing voice morph into somewhat of a pained shout. This is the National at it’s most emotional, and on Wednesday night was the perfect transition from a few softer songs off of the new album to the manic song at #3 on my list (see the setlist in detail above).
6. “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” (from High Violet)
I originally thought about putting Bloodbuzz in this spot, but as I refined and reviewed my list the band’s biggest single fell out of my top 10 entirely and was replaced at #6 by Vanderlyle. I have seen this song performed live three times, each in the same manner but each unique in its own right. Wednesday night at Barclays, much like for the six shows at the Beacon Theatre in 2011 and many other times in between, the National used Vanderlyle to make a massive venue feel like your living room. For the evening’s finale, after bringing the arena to its knees with “Mr. November” and “Terrible Love”, the band brought out everyone who was part of the show – each instrumentalist, performers from opening acts – unplugged their instruments and just sang. Thousands and thousands of people singing together, “Vanderlyle, crybaby, cry …” If you could express what it feels like to be naked, completely exposed, in a song, this is what it would feel like. “I’ll explain everything to the geeks. // All the very best of us // String ourselves up for love.” This a song that is so easily dismissed as the last on High Violet, and I can understand why it is an afterthought. The difference between appreciating Vanderlyle vs. Bloodbuzz is the difference between music as a live performance, with subtlety and variability, and as a recorded and perfected self-contained unit. I’ll explain below how I left the wonderful Bloodbuzz off of my top 10; for now, understand that this is the song that the National chooses to sing together with Bon Iver, Sharon Van Etten, Wye Oak, My Brightest Diamond and so many others, not to mention thousands of fans, all of whom are made to feel like close friends for those 4 minutes.
5. “Fake Empire” (from Boxer)
As pretty as the lyrics for Fake Empire are – and I don’t think any song is prettier than this one – this is one of the few National songs that I feel is driven more by the music than the words. This is also the song, as the opening track off of Boxer, that told you that the National was for real. Fake Empire is part hopeful, part despairing – in other words exactly like the feeling that the National experience is supposed to evoke overall, and therefore a perfect ending to the main set. Arm in arm we sing and sway, half awake in a Fake Empire.
4. “Terrible Love” (from High Violet)
How do you follow up “Mr. November?” What wouldn’t feel anti-climactic after Berninger screams and curses and literally runs through the crowd? Terrible Love somehow, some way, works as the National’s almost-final song of the night at most of their shows. It opens so slow , giving you the impression that you can catch your breath after the hysteria of Mr. November, you are in “it’s quiet company.” But like so many of the best National songs it opens up like a bouquet, and once again you are inside the music, completely under their influence, as Berninger sings more powerfully each time through, “It takes an ocean not to break!” Whew.
3. “Squalor Victoria” (from Boxer)
Until hearing Squalor Victoria live, I didn’t think much of it. I don’t necessarily need to know what a song is about to enjoy it, but the words “Squalor Victoria” were so foreign to me that it was hard to get too excited about this song. Then I heard it at the Beacon. It was my first “whoa, what was that?” moment of the night. Similar to “England”, I left the show overcome by a song I never expected to think about again. Berninger goes from somber to excitedly emotional often; only for very few songs does he reach that place that can be called wild emotional frenzy. “Raise our heavenly glasses to the heavens, Squalor Victoria! Squalor Victoria!” I still don’t know what it means, but I know he means it.
2. “Mistaken for Strangers” (from Boxer)
The first time I saw the National perform they didn’t play Mistaken for Strangers. That show was unquestionably one of the best I’ve ever seen, and yet the absence of this one song was a definite blemish on an otherwise spectacular night. On Wednesday night they played it third; like Bloodbuzz which preceded it, Mistaken for Strangers wasn’t used to capture and overwhelm the arena, rather to set the tone for the evening. That said, I know of several people who claimed to come to the show for just two songs – #2 and #1 on my list. I think there’s something universal in the idea of being “mistaken for strangers by your own friends, when you pass them at night …” that every National fan relates to. More than any other of their songs, the metaphoric imagery of this one resonates in each and every one of us. That’s how you write a beautiful song.
1. “Mr. November” (from Alligator)
I understand that music is subjective. I understand that people’s tastes differ. That said, if you love the National and this isn’t your favorite song, I must meet you as we need to have a long discussion. This isn’t the best song by the National; this is the best song by any active band, period. And last Wednesday night’s performance of Mr. November, in the middle of the band’s five song encore, was possibly the single greatest moment I’ve ever had at a concert.
The song itself is beyond compare. The crowd of course knew that at some point it would be played – it always is, it always will be – as it was, it followed two songs off of Trouble Will Find Me that had the honor of kicking off the encore. (“I Should Live In Salt” and “Humiliation”, which stand as examples of why Trouble is a great album. Neither is close to the album’s best but both are still worthy of this prominent spot in the show.) The first few lyrics set the tone – Berninger already is at a higher energy level and pitch then he normally would be to start – “This is nothing like it was in my room, in my best clothes …” Then the desperate imagery begins – “I’m the new blue blood // I’m the great white hope // I’m the new blue blood.” The music then overcomes Berninger in a way it hasn’t all night – “I won’t fuck us over! I’m Mr. November! I’m Mr. November!! I won’t fuck us over!!” As it does, it takes over the entire crowd, myself included. You find yourself screaming, flailing, “I won’t fuck us over!! I’m Mr. November!!” Berninger gives us a small reprieve, just long enough to catch our collective breath, “I wish that I believed in fate, I wish I didn’t sleep so late // I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders // I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.”
But it’s of no use. The song has taken us over. Every last one of us. Berninger runs off the stage and into the crowd – and remember, this is not Bowery Ballroom, this is a huge arena crowd – almost as if he had no choice but to be in our arms, his cheerleaders. Berninger gets halfway back through the Barclays arena floor, where I actually finally notice the small tornado approaching me. Until then I was so engaged that I missed his approach. This may sound hard to believe, but I don’t see Berninger until he is actually touching me. He is singing directly into my face, if you can even calling it singing – screaming – “I won’t fuck us over! I’m Mr. November! I’m Mr. November!! I won’t fuck us over!!” I grab his shoulder, his arm, I am in the eye of the storm as it swirls back up towards the stage along the right hand side of the crowd. I won’t let go. I can’t. The crowd, the music, the energy surging through my body, is all pulling me forward. Berninger climbs back up on the stage … “I won’t fuck us over! I’m Mr. November! I’m Mr. November!! I’m Mr. November!!!” … and … exhale.
The single greatest moment I’ve ever had at a concert. And hands down the #1 song by the National.
Of course, there were some extremely tough omissions from the list. Here are some thoughts on the songs it pained me to leave off of the list:
- “Bloodbuzz Ohio” (from High Violet)
The first single off of High Violet, and the one that launched the National into indie-band super-stardom. And yet I reluctantly an painfully cannot include it in my top 10. I recognize how controversial this is. On the one hand, Bloodbuzz the most National of any National song, if you get my drift. If asked to play a single song that best represented the band, Bloodbuzz would easily be my go-to song. The first time I heard it played, just before High Violet came out, I said one word: “wow.” You cannot hear it without singing along, laughing at the imagery, reveling in the drums. Despite all that, it doesn’t blow me away like the songs on my do. It’s almost as if Bloodbuzz is so perfectly middle-of-the-road National fare that it fails to stand out in any way other than being universally liked. It’s played early in the show, the second song overall, to get the crowd in the mood, yet it is in mo way memorable. Such a huge hit should be closing out the show; instead it is a table-setter. So I reluctantly leave it out of my top 10, which is reserved for songs I love, not those “merely” universally liked.
- “Afraid of Everyone” (from High Violet)
A very good song, and one that I know many people would put in their top 10. But Brown actually puts it at number 2! I don’t have the drugs to sort that out.
- “Sorrow” (from High Violet)
I wanted to put it in my top 10 just for this. Berninger said just before playing it “We know this song better than any of our other songs.” It’s good to have a sense of humor about these things.
- “Don’t Swallow the Cap” (from Trouble Will Find Me)
The second single off of Trouble was barely edged out by Sea of Love for #10 on my list. Time will tell which of these two songs will be the dominant single that fans associate with that album. This is a very rare National song that alternates vocals between Matt and the rest of the band. This one is so easy to sing along to, it was also an ideal choice for first song of the night.
- “Graceless” (from Trouble Will Find Me)
I was pleasantly surprised by how moved I was by this song. Appearing very late in the show, and following the emotionally-taxing England, I didn’t expect to be enthralled by a new song that thus far I have liked but didn’t put among the best from Trouble. One reviewer called it, “rougher and wilder than its album counterpart, a breakneck five minute spree of quintessential National-ness towards the end of the main set.” I suppose that explains it. Either way, it was brilliant on Wednesday night and I now see Graceless in a whole new light.
- “Start a War” (from Boxer)
There was a time when Start a War might have been in my top 5, let alone top 10. But it wasn’t played on Wednesday night and also not on my second trip to the Beacon. (Of course, the other time it opened the show!) A fantastic song, and I wouldn’t blame you if you disagreed with me leaving it off. I just feel that it’s been edged out by some of the newer material.
- “Abel” (from Alligator)
Every time I hear Abel – including Wednesday night – I am reminded of how great it is. All I need is that first line, “Abel come on, give me the keys man” … and by the end of the song I am sweating and screaming (as is Berninger), “Well my mind’s not right, my mind’s not right, my mind’s not right, my mind’s not right…” Not everyone feels the same way about Abel as I do, though, and I can understand why. It is missing a bit of the sweetness of a National song, that little something that sets apart their music from everything else. While so many of their songs fall just short of mania (and a few actually get there), this one starts at mania and never comes down. Personally, I love it. But as a polarizing song it’s out of my top 10.
- “Slow Show” (from Boxer)
Was in my top 10 until it wasn’t played on Wednesday night. For years, I wanted to make love to this song. Now, I don’t mean make love while this song was playing – I literally mean that I wanted to make love to this song. For now it’s been temporarily passed by, “I Need My Girl” taking its place. If the band would have played it Wednesday night (as perhaps they should have) I’m not sure the baton would have passed so easily.
- “Secret Meeting” (from Alligator)
Originally my favorite song from Alligator, even ahead of Mr. November. Now, having not seen it performed live even once, I have no choice but to knock it down a few pegs. Still, I would be the first to sign a petition to bring it back into the National’s rotation.
So there you go. My top 10 plus 9 highly painful omissions. Not even mentioned from Brown’s top 10: #10 “Rylan” (I love this song as much as anyone, but if it wasn’t good enough to make Trouble then it doesn’t belong on this list), #9 “Exile Vilify” (a perfectly good, perfectly forgettable National song), #7 “Brainy” & #6 “Lemonworld” (I really like both, but neither quite blows me away – think poor man’s Bloodbuzz), and #5 “Green Gloves” (huh??).
Seven out of Brown’s top 10 don’t even make my list, 5 don’t make it even if you include my honorable mentions. I think that speaks more to the power of the National’s live show than it does their incredibly rich song library, not to diminish the latter in any way. On Wednesday night at the Barclays they did the near impossible – they made a very large arena seem small. The little Brooklyn band that was playing Terminal 5 three years ago scaled itself up to fill this arena – literally and figuratively – as well as any band this side of U2 could.
More of my pictures from the show can be found here. Professional pics from Dana (distortion) Yavin are available here. More reviews, many with photos and videos, can be found at Vulture, the Village Voice, and CoS, among other places.
I’d love to hear others thoughts about the show, other National show, and your own top 10 (or criticisms of mine). Let’s make this an open dialogue!