Culture & Conversation

Empire of Song

The crowd buzzes on the Lachine Canal as The National starts their set. Matt Berninger cradles the mike, one careless hand raised to the sky, and begins to sing. His words are made of colorful and haunting images: lemonades, demons, spiders, oceans and long socks rain down on the audience. The music stumbles out into the open air in search of… what?

It’s the kind of longing that confounds definition, an unfulfilled desire cast across song after song. It is feeling half-awake in a fake empire; looking and looking for astronauts; wanting a lover who serves you the sky with a big slice of lemon. It is The National’s desperate urge to make sense of the human condition sublimated into this pretty rock music.

The Brooklyn-based band—made up of two sets of brothers and Berninger, the solo singer– play a selection of tracks from their recently released seventh album Trouble Will Find Me alongside a healthy spattering from their fourteen-year career. Two trumpets stand on a platform at the back of the stage; to the other side, a piano. At times the stage projections risk being artily pretentious, but the music is lovely and Berninger’s warm baritone wraps around me like a Snuggie on a chilly summer’s night.

Reviews of The National will often acknowledge their focus on death, a reality which for nihilists can imbue the mundane parts of life with a sense of ridiculousness or even despair. But in making finitude so beautiful, the National takes the listener away from absurdity and nudges towards the conviction that life matters— a rather more pleasant way to feel about it, frankly. Berninger sounds so painfully sincere and when that colossal gravitas bursts out of his professorial little body, one gets the prickly feeling that he knows something very, very important.

During the more energetic tracks—Mr. November, Don’t Swallow the Cap, Mistaken for Strangers—the band lights up the night with energy and passion and an out-of-control light show, though in some of the slower songs it’s not hard to see why they are occasionally accused them of being melancholic. For many fans The National’s insistent acknowledgment of our mortality is nothing short of a relief, draining those pesky angsty feelings that accumulate in the soul like the slow drip of a tap.

Sorrow found me when I was young, Berninger mourns. Sorrow waited, sorrow won.

When at last the piano notes open on their high-octane hit Fake Empire (a personal favourite), the song is welcomed with whoops and cheers. It ostensibly tells the story of a drunk couple going apple-picking, stumbling about the city and possibly racking up some DUIs, but it is also about the fruitless yearning to understand one’s time and place in history. The poor inebriated couple struggle to make sense of their country’s past and in the space between words we see centuries of American buildings rise and fall, lynchings lost to history, war planes reaching overseas, and disturbingly inarticulate presidents elected. We see The National when they were a bunch of 30somethings starting out on tour and banging their heads on the country that made them.

Awash in the ethereal blue lights of the stage, the audience applauds as projections of high-rise buildings appear. A majestic trumpet sings with all the fanfare a wind instrument can muster (a lot): Let’s not try to figure out everything at once. Brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner reach the last swooning notes and raise their guitars to the sky. Berninger whispers no thinking for a little while, releases the crowd from his clutches so the band can have a pee break and off I go to recover my soul after it’s floated away for the third damn song.

True story.

Two hours in, across the night in the Lachine Canal the air is electric. The National breaks into the single Terrible Love and the music titters like a giddy schoolgirl about to spill the gossip to her shrieking friends. Is it love we all long for? Is it beauty? Or is it the ability to download our souls onto a hard drive? Ideally one that will outlast the inevitable explosion of the sun? The beat quickens and the notes rise. The audience is seized with the sense of something about to happen, something big is about to happen, something big is about to happen and… Fin.

A sea of hands reach for the stage amid blinding white spotlights. Damn I thought they were gonna tell us.

The National played at the Lachine Canal, Centenial Esplanade, June 13.

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