The National’s claim on my ‘medium-sized American heart’

When I mention The National, I get a lot of blank stares. I’m constantly surprised that the band isn’t on permanent rotation in every red-blooded American’s home. This isn’t to say that The National is a truly American experience, but rather that they’ve majestically described the struggle for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the ways that Ansel Adams captured the empty stillness of nature, or how Norman Rockwell illustrated everyday life, however sentimental and posed it may have been.

The Brooklyn brooders can seem a bit drab and heady to a casual listener. National albums are downbeat and expansively distant. The access points come in sugar-coated lyrics, like little gumdrops of words that stick to the teeth and hover in the pit of your gut. Sure, it’s cerebral, and it turns some people off. But these intricate lyrics—lines that communicate everyday human problems in such poetic ways—capture such universal themes in American life, cultivated and harvested from life’s rhythm of heartwreck, social awkwardness, and professional strife.

Matt Berninger, in performance with The National, 2010, Denver, Co.

Frontman Matt Berninger’s poetry-laden croon has always been the essential part of a National experience. His guttural baritone cycles around lyrics, casting them across saturated melodies and setting a thematic that put The National in their own genre of hyper-intellectual brain rock.

The band’s self-titled release debuted in 2001, followed by several albums on the group’s own label. The first album to be released on Beggars Banquet, Alligator pushed The National’s appeal with a pattern of compelling wordplay and aggressive choruses, unrolling their musical angst and lyrical wit, taking us to secret meetings in the basement of Berninger’s brain. In the swells of their most ambitious songs, such as in “Abel” and “Mr. November,” the discontent is palatable, Beringer’s baritone roaring into a screaming eruption of modern vexation.

Boxer, the 2007 album that seemed to tip the scales for The National toward a broader audience, was rich with approachability and soaring melodies. But the group drifted away from the enormous, palatable swoon of Boxer on their next release, High Violet, which delivered some of the most poignant songs of the band’s discography but didn’t court a national audience like Boxer. Instead of turning the sails toward fertile, approachable land, High Violet began winding down to The National’s most minimalist record yet, 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. The album has a slow cadence, unfolding an expansive, waltzing rhythm that hovers atop a harmonious narrative of tangled melancholy.

The National has been weaving this narrative for years. On Boxer, Berninger is showered and blue-blazen, a professional in his beloved white shirt who bones up on the American dictionary, a bit stuffy compared to “Mr. November,” the character in the fist-pounding anthem from Alligator that ends in a convulsion of screaming and fit throwing. In “Daughters of the Soho Riots,” Berninger admits to having our dreams and our teeth marks. Now, when he walks into a room, he does not light it up. He wishes he could go back and keep a few secrets.

Trouble Will Find Me tour brought the band to headline Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater in September. To witness this band emerging from backstage made me so proud; it was a bucket list performance, no doubt. As the rhythm of our lives played out above the red cliffs, I felt each word slam against my chest. The rolling drumbeat become part of my pulse, and pure joy overcame me.

The set list is below, with my favorite lyrics pulled from each.

  • “I should live in salt for leaving you behind” (I Should Live in Salt)
  • “I’m not alone / I’ll never be / and to the bone / I’m evergreen” (Don’t Swallow the Cap)
  • “Stand up straight at the foot of your love / I lift my shirt up” (Bloodbuzz)
  • “When I walk into a room / I do not light it up / Fuck” (Demons)
  • “Hey Jo / sorry I hurt you but / they say love is a virtue / Don’t they?” (Sea of Love)
  • “Can’t face heaven all heaven-faced” (Heavenfaced)
  • “Lay the young blue bodies / with the old red bodies” (Afraid of Everyone)
  • “Everything means everything” (Conversation 16)
  • “Out of my league / I have birds in my sleeves / and I want rush in with the fools” (Squalor Victoria)
  • “I am good / I am grounded / Davey says that I look taller” (I Need My Girl)
  • “I won’t be vacant anymore / I won’t be waiting anymore” (This is the Last Time)
  • “Tired and wired we ruin too easy / Sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave” (Apartment Story)
  • “My mind’s gone loose inside its shell” (Abel)
  • “You own me / There’s nothing you can do / You own me / Lucky you” (Lucky You)
  • “You could drive a car through my head in five minutes / from one side of it to the other” (Slow Show)
  • “You didn’t see me I was falling apart / I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park” (Pink Rabbits)
  • “Graceless / Is there a powder to erase this?” (Graceless)
  • “You must be somewhere in London / You must be loving your life in the rain” (England)
  • “Tonight you just close your eyes / and I just watch you / slip away” (About Today)
  • “It’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky” (Fake Empire)


  • “I was teething on roses / I was in Guns and Noses” (Humiliation)
  • “I wish that I believed in fate / I wish I didn’t sleep so late / I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders” (Mr. November)
  • “It takes an ocean not to break” (a cappella) (Terrible Love)

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