Tour Review: Was The National Live A Disappointment?

On September 9th, Milano Rocks hosted the second night of the tripartite festival, seeing names such as Franz Ferdinand as openers and The National as headliners.

At 9:45pm, 15 minutes late, The National took possession of the stage, with all their instruments and wide souls. Right before they reached the stage, a "Please Stand By..." message appeared on the big screen in the background, only augmenting the suspense. A camera followed them around backstage to show the crowd what they were up to until they finally walked in front of us. After thanking the audience, Aaron Dessner's piano started playing "Nobody Else Will Be There", a perfect opening song, if you ask me.

"You said we're not so tied together, what did you mean? Meet me in the stairwell in a second for a glass of gin. Nobody else will be there..."
The existentialism was palpable from the first note, and singer Matt Berninger's presence only highlighted the experience and sophistication of the band's musical purpose. With cracking voice Berninger sang the heartbreaking lyrics "My faith is sick and my skin is thin as ever, I need you alone. Goodbyes always take us half an hour, can we just go home?", followed by Bryce Dessner's mannerisms with the guitar, and 30,000 people's voices adoring and applauding the pain shown on stage.

The piano, the guitars, and the reverberation created by the first song were interrupted by the second track, "The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness", also taken from their latest album Sleep Well Beast. The crowd was still not convinced for some reason; the atmosphere changed completely when a guitar riff introduced the roaring and upbeat "Don't Swallow The Cap", with rainbow lights hanging over the heads of the band. Everyone was reborn. Matt's calming voice expressed a new type of feeling, the one the makes you believe that everything will be okay eventually.

"When they ask what do I see I say 'a bright white beautiful heaven hanging over me'."

After a few other songs, one of the most intense and intimate moments of the show happened: "Walk It Back". The last album is known for its intimacy and torment, and this song is the epitome of that. The singer's low voice rocks the listeners like a lullaby, accompanied by the comforting guitar sounds floating in the air. This song took the whole festival to another level, speaking up about internal and personal misery, it held everybody's hand. Tears were streaming down my face, as well as my worries.

"Forget it, nothing I change changes anything."

From this track forward it was an emotional mess.

"Guilty Party"'s drums resounded in our chests, reminding us of how lonely life can get if we don't make the right decisions, but "it's nobody's fault". The trumpets played in the second part, blending all the sounds together and, well, making me cry even more. Having "nothing left to say" is not a crime, it's just how it is - music is all we have left. During "Guilty Party" the guitars reached their highest peak; having a large space to show off, they made everything more intense.

"Bloodbuzz Ohio" was next, and literally, "the floors were falling down from everybody I [knew]". Between one song and the other, Berninger tried to communicate with the crowd, which was more and more moved by the second; politics, "fuck Donald Trump", love, life, existence, and death, were all topics of conversation. It gave the impression of being the only things The National were able to talk about, with them being the main focus of their albums as well.

Of course, it wouldn't be a The National show if the speeches were not this intense, nor if they didn't play the famous "I Need My Girl", creating a choir environment, involving every single voice in the process of singing the lyrics. Simple lights were used as a set during this one, as simple as the melody. Matt was just standing in front of the microphone, with his hands behind his back, simply taking in the view.

"Davy says that I look taller, but I can't get my head around it... I keep feeling smaller and smaller."

And this is how everyone was feeling in front of the greatness of this band: smaller than life.

After playing the emotional "Slow Show", which has one of my favourite lyrics, "I leaned on the wall, the wall leaned away", they played a new unreleased song that shocked all of us. It's called "Light Years" - even though Matt Berninger couldn't remember the title at first. It has a heart wrenching set of sounds, characterised by delicate echoes of trumpets, synths, piano, and light guitars.

"Oh the glory of it all was lost on me, 'til I saw how hard it'd be to reach you. And I would always be light years, light years away from you.

Here's the first part:

What happened next was absolutely crazy: when playing "Day I Die", Matt got carried away and literally went through the crowd, singing with fans and hugging them, while I was trying not to die by getting crushed by people (and feelings). While "Day I Die" questions where we will be when we die, I was thinking of how alive I was feeling, especially during the next song, "Graceless". Even if Berninger's voice was more than gone by now, he made the song raw and pure, dancing around and making the audience do it too. Here I understood how important The National's music is to the world. They invent, they are visionaries disguised in normal human beings' bodies. They created a genre that stands alone. Their lyrics are so metaphorical that sometimes they don't even seem to make sense, but really they do. They do make a lot of sense.

"All of my thoughts of you / bullets through rotten fruit / come apart at the seams / now I know what dying means / I am not my rosy self, left my roses on my shelf / take the white ones they're my favourite / it's the side effects that save us. Grace! Put the flowers you find in a vase! If you're dead in the mind it will brighten the place. Don't let them die on the vine, it's a waste. Grace!"

"Rylan", the political "Fake Empire", and "Carin At The Liquor Store" soundtracked the rest of the show, until they played a rare but appreciated song: "Terrible Love". Thankfully we weren't "walking with spiders" while enjoying the show, but all jokes aside this song is capable of breaking the toughest person. All the trouble, all the agony, were audible in Matt's voice.

"It takes an ocean not to break."
Marching like a soldier and screaming like a victim, Berninger gave everything he had during "Mr. November", juxtaposing it to the following song, "About Today". Can a song make you feel enlightened yet somber at the same time? Yes. "About Today" carries care, delicacy, love, and unconditional love within itself, and it just stays there. Played by a round of the same 5 or 6 chords, it gives one of the most magical experiences to ever dream of. It stays there and it looks at you, just like a parent looks at their child, with self-destruction yet new life in their eyes. It lulls one with its trumpets and eclectic drums, exploding at the end with a mix of guitar and crowd's cheers.

"Tonight / you close your eyes. And I just watch you / slip away. How close am I? To losing you."

The band left the stage. They left and we thought it was for good. But they came back, apologising because they thought they ran out of time. They didn't go back to their original positions though- Matt turned the microphone towards the audience and all the other members were standing with their instrument in hand, drummer Brian Devendorf included, with a tambourine. This was the moment when 30,000 voices became one, singing the words of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" while the band played a light melody. Matt enhanced everything with his gestures, while the Dessner brothers couldn't stop smiling at each other and at the crowd.

Was The National live a disappointment?

It could never be.

Sadness is often avoided, righteously, but there can't be sadness if there isn't happiness too. The National are the meeting point. The National are split between this constant sense of distraught and a comforting sense of companionship, and I would not change it for anything in the world.
They brought music together, they taught many people how to live their lives, them being fathers, husbands, brothers, and friends. The National's music is important, and just like Ulysses, it is multiform, but on the contrary of the homeric hero, they can't be called Nobody.

"People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying the reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors, and you, all of you, will be left out to just study what we do." 


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