The National’s newest album is called Boxer. By the end of their hour-and-a-half set at The Vic on Saturday night, singer Matt Berninger looked like a fighter himself.
Eyes squeezed shut as if they were swollen, he staggered around the stage, tripping over amps and slobbering into the mic, delirious, beaten and screaming, “I WON’T FUCK US OVER! I WON’T FUCK US OVER!”
It rocked. It truly did. That’s what was surprising about seeing The National live: On their albums, they’re really good at not rocking.
Other than Berninger’s booming baritone voice, restraint has been the defining feature of the Cincinnati fivesome’s music since their 2001 self-titled debut. On Boxer, released in May, the songs simmer but rarely boil over, crescendo but don’t climax.
The band came close to throwing that all out Saturday night with the injection of big-rock codas and guitar-hero showmanship. Suddenly, The National became an anthem band.
Boxer’s most seductive track, “Brainy,” opened the show. On the album, the song glides over a hammering drum beat and two guitar riffs — one prickly and questioning, the other smoky and dark — to mimic the tense obsession described by Berninger’s lyrics. That was all there in the concert, too. But instead of leaving the song’s tension unresolved as the band does on Boxer, they let it all out after the second chorus with a thundering instrumental buildup, equipped with a fierce fiddle solo.
That’s how most of the songs played out. Stately stomps like “Squalor Victoria” became war marches. The folksy thrum of “Daughters of the Soho Riots” and “About Today” unfurled into slow motion apocalypses. Songs that already rocked on their albums — “Abel,” “Mr. November,” “Apartment Story” — were faster, louder and crazier.
The National recognize the value of music as communion. Much of Boxer is preoccupied with the idea that modern man has a hard time making real, meaningful connections with others. Nerves, vanity and jealousy make the characters of Berninger’s world circle one another suspiciously, stuck in relationships of unspoken hostility. But sometimes, people drop their guard and lean on each other in moments of strange, restive intimacy, during a late night on the town or in a bedroom away from a crowded party. These are the “Fake Empires” Beringer talks about in the album’s first song: insulated, blissful and ready to crumble at any time.
A show like the one The National put on Saturday night comes close to being an “empire.” Between songs, Berninger mumbled to the audience jovially, wearing a wry smile and shooting friendly glances at his bandmates. But when he was singing, he was completely lost to the world — eyes clenched shut, dancing with the mic stand, head tilted towards the ceiling or the floor. During the instrumental parts of the songs, he stood awkwardly, sometimes turning his back to the audience or jerkily clapping his hands.
The combination of his intensely emotional performance, the between-song giddy warmth, and his band’s epic renditions made the entire show fantastic to watch. Put on top of that the cult feeling that happens at any great concert — the crowd moving their lips to the same words as the singer, tapping their feet to the same beat as the drummer, watching the same spectacle as everyone else in the audience — and the effect was actually transporting.
On the final song, “Mr. November,” when Berninger was at his most ecstatic — and, seemingly, drunkest — he descended into the audience. “I was carried in the arms of cheerleaders,” he sang, as everyone around stretched out their arms to touch him. It was a corny, rock-cliché moment, but it also felt free of irony and completely honest. If Berninger was a beaten-up boxer, everyone there had been in the ring too. They were more than happy to be leaned on, at least for a minute.