One of the things that makes The National‘s music so brilliant—and what might make the band’s latest album, Boxer, the best release of 2007—is its ambiguity.
Boxer may or may not be about war (the song “Start A War” is one hint, lines like “Invite me to the war every night of the summer / and we’ll play G.I. blood, G.I. blood” in “Gospel” are another), national pride (“Fake Empire”), media control (“Apartment Story,” with its insistent “do whatever the TV tells us”), money (“here in the guest room / where we throw money at each other and cry” in “Guest Room,” or talk of “fill[ing] yourself with quarters” or hiding under “silvery, silvery citibank lights” in “Mistaken For Strangers”), obsession (all of “Brainy”), home or the lack thereof (“Apartment Story” and “Guest Room”), or it could, of course, all be wonderful nonsense, lyrics that are not intended to really have any objective meaning; an album about everything and nothing (“the unmagnificent lives of adults,” as “Mistaken For Strangers” puts it), The National’s own made-up version of the English language that is left up to the audience to iron out.
The band’s brilliant Tuesday night show at a sold-out Opera House did little to clear up any of that lyrical ambiguity. At the end of “Squalor Victoria,” a song as cryptic as it is beautiful (“Out of my league, I have birds in my sleeves and I wanna rush in with the fools”), lead singer Matt Berninger (pictured above) admitted to the audience that “I don’t know what that song means…but it sounds Canadian.” To which the audience, of course, applauded, then continued to sing along with the band’s endlessly open-ended lyrics for the rest of the night.
Guitarist Bryce Dessner.
Though they have five studio albums under their belt, The National chose to focus almost entirely on songs from Boxer and 2005’s Alligator, playing only one song each off of 2004’s Cherry Tree and 2003’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (and none off of their self-titled 2001 debut) during their 19-song, hour-and-a-half-long set. Given that the band has consistently gotten better with each release (an especially difficult feat following Alligator, which was an absolutely brilliant album), it was a reasonable decision. The band, after all, is almost universally labeled as a “grower,” garnering fans with each album listen—just over a year ago, for instance, the band was playing at the Horseshoe Tavern; a sold-out Opera House show is, by all definitions, quite an upgrade.
Live, the percussion—provided by one member of the band’s two pairs of brothers, Bryan Devendorf—was stellar but not as show-stealing as on record, and the lack of horns was occasionally noticeable in a few songs (like “Racing Like A Pro”) where their role is key. Instead, then, the attention was placed squarely on a Berninger, whose spectacular baritone voice on Tuesday night sounded as deep and dark and distant as his lyrics. By the time the band had finished “Mr. November,” the set’s last song before the band’s encore, the crowd was frenzied, dumbstruck, in absolute awe. “Mr. November” takes the perspective of a heroic and determined someone, potentially Derek Jeter (who shares the nickname), potentially George Bush (according to a Stylus Magazine writer we met at the show), potentially no-one at all. But when Berninger sang “I’m the new blue blood, I’m the great white hope” teetering on the edge of the stage in the moments before the song all but explodes, everyone knew who he might as well be talking about. While The National’s lyrics remain cryptic, any ambiguity that the audience could have possibly felt about the band’s talents seemed simply whisked away.
Photos by David Topping; more are in the concert’s Flickr set. Clips of each song on Boxer, mixed in with live performances and studio clips, can be found at the website for Vincent Moon’s upcoming film about the band, A Skin, A Night.