Monday, August 4, 2008

The National - August 4th

You know what's a force to be fucking reckoned with? The National. I don't care if you disagree. If you disagree, then I genuinely believe you are wrong. I don't just mean wrong in my opinion, I mean that you have violated an until-now only fabled absolute truth. You are wrong in the eyes of nature and the universe. The National just played the best goddamn show I have ever heard. Like that Coke bottle that fell from the sky in The Gods Must Be Crazy, I saw it coming and yet I still let it hit me square in the face, then allowed its undeniable substance to disrupt my way of viewing the world forever. Hyperbole? No. That's the scary part. NOT hyperbole.

Again, to clarify, best show I have heard, rather than seen, because I think seeing-wise, I've been to better shows. Even this summer, I would say The Cool Kids top the National for being good at being seen. But those songs played up there tonight on the Summerstage - those bitches had LAYERS. It was even more evident how complex each song is when it's played live than it is on the albums, and the slight edits and elaborations they'd made on some of their older songs made me think of an evolutionary lineage, like the songs were losing and gaining notes and chords the same way species lose and gain genes and features. They started off with "Brainy", and ran the gamut of their self-titled, Alligator and Boxer, ending on "Fake Empire" before returning to play "Start A War". If it had been socially acceptable for me to pee my pants as a demonstration of my enthusiasm, well then, consider my pants almost peed. After that they played "Karen" and a song I didn't recognize but that I began to very woozily love by the end. Along the way was the best song of their songs, in my humble and infallible opinion, "Slow Show", which I became so overwhelmingly involved with that I'm sure I must have looked at least a little autistic. Who knows? Maybe I am a little autistic, but only with regards to The National.

But that's kind of the thing: their music and lyrics are so unsettling but there's no way to avoid being transfixed - TRANSFIXED - by them. I remember first listening to Boxer, and not fully understanding what was going on but being intrigued enough to keep listening to it. That NEVER happens with me. I barely have enough patience to wait in line for ice cream. If it weren't for how ardently I love ice cream, I never would. Accordingly, I tend to like music without subtleties; I like artists that within the first thirty seconds have said "so, this is my deal", which is why I will never tire of songs like "3 Peat" by Lil Wayne or "Why Can't I Be You?" by the Cure or "Blood on the Dance Floor" by Michael Jackson. Songs that come up and shake your hand and tell you exactly what shit's about. But I could not stop listening to Boxer, even though it took weeks for the songs to begin separating from each other and unfurling and revealing undertones and levels and meanings (but never ever anything that could be pinned down - that's Matt Berninger's dirty, awesome magic trick with lyrics). It was the most effort I've ever put into an album, and the most, well, something I've ever gotten out. I don't know what, but there was a something I have gotten out of it.

Whatever the something is that exists in those songs, it's certainly not joy, or it's not just joy. It is chilly and warm and tepid all at once, and if one thing is constant, it's how mercurial each new bar will be, how it might make you feel overwhelmed or totally empty. No, for real! Shut up! I'm allowed to be cheesy when describing profound experiences that threaten my still very-much-intact innocence! Even Matt Berninger is allowed: his last song dedication was an improvised "to today", which was actually not as cheesy as you'd think. Still, he walked away from the microphone and came back and said "That is the cheesiest dedication I've ever given" but no apology was granted or necessary and I still think it was a class A dedication, judgments be damned.

I don't even want to describe the level at which I became involved in the show; it will only turn into recounting things that seem awkward in retrospect, but that weren't at the time. All I will say is that it was less that they rocked my socks off and more that they gently but firmly peeled them off, thus showing me the naked emptiness of a human life and the confusing mix of love, attachment, isolation and disappointment therein. Yeah, from fucking taking my socks off. And it was obvious I was not the only one: this was a sold-out show at the Central Park Summerstage and nobody made a sound while they were playing. People actually shushed audience members that were talking. How weird is that? Just the strongest stars poking through the New York glare, a little breeze and a band playing to a silent audience.