Before seeing The National at The Wiltern, I already had cheap shots ready for this introduction, all centered on one cold, snarky question: Is Joy Division from Brooklyn?
On Saturday night, as the sun dropped into the downtown skyline and with the world's biggest Boxer fan at my side, I scribbled those words into my notebook. I was all ready to write a whiny* review about how some dude from Ohio was stealing Ian Curtis' vibe, but then Matt Berninger had to go and complicate things.
*But there will be whining, thanks to the openers.
Ramona Falls is the side project of Menomena's Brent Knopf - and by "side" I think I mean "time-traveling." Knopf is charming in a Michael Cera sort of way, but everything about his band, including that boyish charm, reminded me of the pop-punk I enjoyed in middle school. Their performance unfolded as a series of unoriginal tropes circa the turn of the millennium: well-executed but poorly crafted guitar work, a cute lead singing heartbreak from behind a keyboard, and a loud drummer who I imagine wishes he were in a metal band. Even their name, borrowed from a waterfall in Oregon where Knopf hiked as a kid, feels stale.
Standards sufficiently lowered, when the National wandered on stage I found myself enjoying the transition from teen angst into inconsolable adult melancholy. "Start a War" went straight into "Mistaken for Strangers," with Matt Berninger's endearing lack of stage presence proving he has a career option in hypnotism.
Really, I can't tell if Matt is a fantastic actor with a character voice or genuinely destroyed by heartbreak, but he's fascinating to watch, in a mesmerizing, almost sedative sort of way. Wearing a stylish, tight-fitting three-piece suit, he looks like a Victorian heroin addict going through withdrawal, nervously keeping his elbow at a 90-degree angle, his tight fist trembling, his emotions in check.
Matt has perfected a presence that is calm, cool & disaffected, which is fine, but I think this is where I take issue with the National. On tracks like "Baby We'll Be Fine," that Joy Division comparison sneaks its way back into my psyche, but only because I'd rather be listening to "Love Will Tear Us Apart." The moment where Matt repeats, "I'm so sorry for everything ..." exemplifies what the National is good at: building songs that feel like calm, even waves of sorrow. Excuse the cheesy metaphor, but these waves, with their rhythmic, rolling guitar and kicky drums, never actually crash. Maybe that's what I want: some yelling, some violence, some quiet moments, or anything to break up that disaffected post-punk sound.
I finally got all of the above when the band declared they'd break their momentum by playing a slow song. Weird, because I thought they were all slow songs, until I heard "Green Gloves." The song starts with soft acoustic strumming and scratching that sounds like Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" (which, a thousand plays later, still gives me goosebumps). Unaware of the audience's existence, Matt softens his baritone and almost entirely convinces me this is not an act. He really needs a hug. Snark aside, the song was a really, really lovely and welcome moment of understated talent.
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Doubly welcome, a whiplash change in pace to the first track I ever heard by the National, "Abel." Finally Matt moved around the stage and let that subtlety turn into fury matching the song's electric wall of sound, yelling "My mind's not right!" and inciting a little riot amongst the formerly motionless crowd.
Loved the quiet, loved the riot, but from there the National went back to their static modus operandi. Maybe it's because they sometimes sing about Hollywood, or our city is full of dark relationships and gritty complexities, but the fans still absolutely loved the show. "England," one of the tracks off the new album, High Violet, provided a neat L.A. moment: Matt sang about being in a Los Angeles cathedral, which felt so fitting in the gorgeous Wiltern, with its high ceilings and ornate decorations.
Over at the L.A. Times, Todd Martens smartly pointed out in his review of Friday's show that "even in a slow sales week, there are typically more flashy acts than the National bowing at No. 3 on the U.S. pop chart. But that's precisely where Brooklyn's heroes entered the tally with 'High Violet,' landing between Lady Antebellum and the soundtrack to 'Iron Man 2.'"
Weird, right? (Btw - I'm all for romantic visions of the South, but not sure I'd go so far as glorifying that whole pre-war thing ... Was Lady Confederate taken?) With his Coachella performance still fresh on my mind, all I can think of is a bit of advice for the National from my own favorite Brooklyn hero, Jigga man himself: "I know we facing a recession / But the music y'all making gonna make it the Great Depression."