It’s a peculiar thing that The National are this big. Their members debuted an exhibit at the Guggenheim yesterday and have another video installation set to premiere at the Met next month. Their “intimate” New York concert to showcase their new Alicia Vikander-starring short film, titled I’m Still Here, and album, I Am Easy to Find, out May 17, took place last night at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan, the kind of venue an indie band wouldn’t dare dream to play, an almost-3,000 capacity room that typically hosts aging classic rock bands (Steely Dan usually plays every fall, while Bob Dylan has made a habit of booking multiple nights there over the last handful of years) and the occasional stand up set from Jerry Seinfeld. How did this dour, morose and perpetually drunk band from Brooklyn get here?
If their “A Special Evening with The National” show—one of five over the course of about a week also hitting Paris, London, Toronto and Los Angeles—was any indication, it’s almost entirely due to the group’s continued initiative to evolve over time without losing their core sound. They’re a band that doesn’t take monumental risks between albums, but the subtle changes they do in fact undertake ups the ante on each release, leading to a new, yet familiar sound that’s easy to latch onto and as we continue to age with the band.
Here, that means both a more cinematic sound and—for the first time in their 20-year career—a short film to accompany it, two different media that work in tandem that couldn’t exist on their own.
The night began with a screening of that short film, a gorgeous black-and-white 25-minute soiree directed by Mike Mills, best known for 2016’s 20th Century Women and 2010’s Beginners. Interspersed with block-colored slides with profound subtitles (the same ones that backed the band throughout their performance), the film documented the life of a woman played by Alicia Vikander. While she remained the same age throughout her life—Vikander maintained the exact same appearance throughout the picture regardless of whether or not she was a toddler, a high schooler, or on her deathbed—those around her aged in real time, including her parents, her husband, and her son. A portrait of an aging woman who never gets older, Mills’ film, which acts as an extended version of the band’s recent “Light Years” music video, is absolutely stunning, a complex look at how important memories can be as life transitions over time. The songs, with different arrangements than the album versions, take center stage and dialogue is largely kept to a minimum, led by the text sprinkled throughout.
It was then followed up by a Q&A moderated by Julien Baker featuring Mills, Bryce Dessner and Matt Berninger, who talked at length at how the film itself led to the completion of the new record. “Half of the songs were informed by the movie,” Berninger explained, noting that the second half of the album (though not necessarily in tracklist order) was written during or after the movie was filmed, its subtitles eventually becoming song lyrics. “We wouldn’t have an album without Mike,” the Dessner brother added.
After a brief intermission, the band returned to play the forthcoming record—not out for about another month or so—in full, giving the 16 new songs their time to shine before they inevitably have to give way to the rest of The National’s hits and fan favorites once they begin a proper tour and hit the festival circuit beginning in June. The theater setting provided the perfect place to play this new collection of songs, most of them more downtempo, piano-driven and cinematic than the majority of their growing back catalogue. With many tracks reminiscent of “Pink Rabbits” or “Nobody Wants to Be Here,” the band added a string section for the vast majority of the set, also prominently featuring the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and Mina Tindle, This Is The Kit’s Kate Stable, and Julien Baker herself, often taking lead vocals. As I Am Easy to Find prominently features a bevy of female voices throughout its hour-plus running time, Berninger frequently ceded center stage to the trio of vocalists, giving them the spotlight on his own songs.
While it remains to be seen how the new songs will interact with mainstays like “Mr. November” or “Graceless” on setlists going forward, it was quite a treat to hear the new songs as its own entity, completely enhanced by beautiful swelling strings and a choir to heighten the emotion tenfold. The quieter songs reigned supreme last night—particularly the title track the aforementioned set closer “Light Years,” which could easily become a top 5 National release—with the silent sold out crowd eating up every lyric. The band, now at times featuring more musicians onstage than Arcade Fire, has come a long way since their early days, their laser-like focus on minute details—perhaps the biggest strength of the Dessner brothers—setting them apart from the contemporaries completely.
Once they finished performing the new album, the band returned for an encore, playing perhaps the three biggest songs from their storied career—“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” and “Fake Empire”—becoming a full-on “rock” band once again. But if the performance of the new record showed us anything (plucky lead single “You Had Your Soul With You” notwithstanding), The National aren’t really the same band anymore, focusing much more on delicate piano riffs and string flourishes than deafening guitar builds and drum solos, a fresh and welcome change. Somehow more elegant and tear-jerking than ever before, Matt Berninger & co. wowed New York, showing why I Am Easy to Find could be their best release yet.