Tonight The National is ropier, headier and more strung out than usual. Quiet moments become fuller. Guitars slowly build intricate, sustained riffs and crystalline melodies. The sad moments are poignant and the happy ones are ecstatic. Everything is richer at a live show. In the studio, The National are a picture of careful composition, measure and restraint. In person, they churn out wandering, overflowing noise.
Aaron and Bryce Dessner frazzle haired mad scientists on stage peeling back the room with guitar solos and raftering melodies. On “Where is Her Head,” off their new record, “I Am Easy to Find,” their guitars build complex matrices of noise as vocalists Kate Stables and Matt Berninger chant over them. Neither never had have a free hand throughout the show. With an electric guitar slung over one shoulder, one played two synthesizers stacked on top of each other while the other traveled between a guitar and a keyboard on top of a piano.
Berninger wanders the stage during the musical interludes taking sips from his drink and looking intently into the crowd. His voice is a low hum throughout the room, rarely deviating (only occasionally, to scream) from the steady baritone he is known for. It is slow and plodding and nearly monotone at times; similar to the feeling of being on the edge of sleep—a steady decline and warmth. He looks down at the crowd like he is trying to figure something out. Yet, here we are with him in a sold out, 6,000 seat auditorium listening to songs about heartbreak and disappointment.
Why listen to The National? Why sing along with Berninger as he wails “Everything I love is out to sea?” Why listen to the sound of love failing us and insecurities overwhelming better judgment? I was once in a room where a man was talking about music being made in the middle of a war. He spoke about listening to the music and how it evoked a joy so big it encompassed sadness too. The National are the mirror image to that notion. Their songs are an examination of humiliation, longing and mistakes. They examine these things so carefully and with so much attention that joy can be found there as well. The narratives of their songs are true and honest renderings of human connection. There is joy in seeing things as they are not, but as what one hopes them to be.
The set ends on “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” a National tradition. The whole audience sings along, perfectly enunciating every word. Berninger doesn’t even hold a microphone as he strides the stage, looking down, so confident of the crowd. “All the very best of us / String ourselves up for love” the crowd croons. The words rise up, searching for solace in truths made visible.
Miranda Jetter writes about all manner of noise in Washington, D.C. You can find her at @Mirandajetter on Twitter retweeting people smarter than her.