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National's Anthems 

If Springsteen is right, the glory days of Brooklyn's best rock band may lie just ahead.

The dude with glasses and a beard looks like a failed coke dealer.
  • The dude with glasses and a beard looks like a failed coke dealer.

No one knew quite how to react when Matt Berninger, frontman for the National, started hopping around on one foot and screaming to the ceiling, "My mind is not right! My mind is not right! My mind is not right!" This is unsettling behavior for an opening act. The sold-out crowd, gathered here at New York's United Palace Theatre to see the almighty Arcade Fire, regarded Matt with amusement and concern. The shouting, we expected; "My mind is not right!" is the relentless chorus to "Abel," one of the catchiest and loudest songs on Alligator, the band's excellent record from '05. The hopping, though -- strange. Especially since "Abel" came early in the set, and Matt precariously wobbled and bounced through every song thereafter, mostly calmer, more piano-driven affairs.

"Is he hurt or something?" demanded the woman next to me. Either that or it was an artistic flourish -- some sort of political metaphor for American isolation, perhaps.

"I actually tripped over myself -- my microphone stand," admits Matt the following afternoon, having hobbled to a nearby café from Radio City Music Hall, where both bands will perform tonight.

"I thought you were really drunk, and you fell down and you couldn't stand up," says bassist-guitarist Aaron Dessner, one of the National's two sets of siblings; his brother Bryce and brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf round out the band. "I was about to get angry, like, 'C'mon!'"

"I think Bryan at one point was like, 'What are you doing?'" recalls Matt. "I had tears in my eyes -- 'I'm hurt!'"

Matt and Aaron don't seem too happy about Tuesday night's set. The National -- Cincinnati expats and longtime Brooklynites -- once regarded selling out small clubs as the pinnacle of success, so perhaps they were intimidated by the United Palace Theatre, a frilly monster of a venue.

Or maybe it was the fact that they opened for the Arcade Fire, a cultural phenomenon in full orgiastic arena-rock bloom. Any band in such a delirious environment would look tremendously subdued, and the guys of the National are already laid-back. The band mostly favors intricate, slow- to mid-tempo barroom laments. Bukowskian, but benevolent. Like the Arcade Fire, there's more than a touch of the Boss at work here, but whereas the headliners channel fist-pumping Springsteen, the National prefers the bummed-out, forlorn flip side. It's like Nebraska opening for Born to Run.

Springsteen evidently loves the National. "We hung out with him one night after this Nebraska tribute," recalls Aaron. "One thing he talked a lot about was, as your audience grows, you've gotta figure out how to play to the people in the very back, standing up. I remember thinking, 'That's pretty irrelevant advice for us right now.' I think he had a skewed idea of how big we are. Now it's all coming true."

From where he's sitting, Matt can see the Radio City marquee, a sight he once enjoyed only while watching TV or Woody Allen movies. All told, the National spent about a week in giant sheds as the Arcade Fire's kindling. Both bandmates say they prefer more intimate venues. Fair enough. But Alligator was a slow-burn hit with critics and fans, thus stoking a huge anticipatory demand for its follow-up, Boxer. Some folks -- and by some folks, I mean at the very least me -- suspect the National could be the next huge indie-arena success story, following the same exhilarating trail blazed by the Arcade Fire, the Shins, and Modest Mouse. At the end of the month, the National will headline five sold-out shows at the Bowery Ballroom -- Monday through Friday. That's Sufjan Stevens/Bright Eyes kinda shit. Suddenly, Springsteen doesn't look so deluded.

This is unexpected and wonderful and slightly odd, considering that Boxer doesn't act like a triumphant breakout record. Instead, rising above the multiguitar tapestries that made Alligator so memorable, lilting piano takes the lead and runs throughout the album, which is best taken in one sitting -- that's a dangerous proposition in the single-download age. Its climactic centerpiece is the deceptively titled "Anthem," a shy, hands-in-pockets lullaby with a lovely coda that finds Matt's resonant baritone purring, "You know I dreamed about you/For 29 years/Before I saw you."

To put it in Springsteenian terms, Boxer isn't dismal enough to be Nebraska, exactly, but it rocks no harder than, say, Tunnel of Love. Which is fine. It's a grower from a band that seems to specialize in growers. Alligator didn't catch fire immediately. Matt notes that a few publications even gave it mediocre reviews initially, only to circle around months later with much more favorable opinions. So Boxer may also take a while to settle in. This is by design. "The songs we end up getting the most attached to when we're making a record are the ones that grew on us," Matt says. Aaron is even more blunt: "We usually throw out the catchiest ones, because they sound like we were forcing it."

"Often the songs that are immediate for us -- that are immediate and catchy -- they're appealing because they're familiar in some way," explains Matt. "Those songs -- after three or four listens, they lose their shine. They don't hold our interest as much. It's the odd ducks that stick with us."

That oddness is doubly true of the National's lyrics. Matt is prized for a bizarre, non sequitur sensibility that results in opening lines like, "They're gonna send us to prison for jerks." And though Boxer song titles like "Fake Empire" and "Start a War" suggest a blatant, Bright Eyes sort of political screed, in reality Matt tries to set societal calamity in the background: It's something on the TV, something his characters wish to disconnect from and avoid. The term he's settled on is "fuzzy-headed."

The Radio City marquee looms just outside as he explains this, of course. Playing there -- the elaborate pageantry of it all -- gives him a queasy Miss Saigon sort of feeling, he jokes. Like it or not, though, as subtle as the National tries to play it, a spring awakening seems to have already begun.

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