An Ode to The National: A Journey through Melancholy and Heartache

From the first time I listened to The National’s haunting melodies and introspective lyrics, I knew I had found a band to accompany me through life’s highs and lows. My first encounter with The National was after the release of “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers” and when they released “Boxer”, I found it set my relationship with them in stone.

Formed in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1999, The National consists of vocalist Matt Berninger, guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and the rhythm section of Scott and Bryan Devendorf. The band’s music, often characterized by melancholy, introspection, and raw emotion, quickly captured my attention and has been a constant companion ever since.

Photo: Michael Amico

The National (2001)

Their self-titled debut album, “The National” (2001), is where it all began. Although not as polished as their later works, the album showcased the band’s talent for poetic lyrics and moody soundscapes. Standout tracks like “American Mary” and “Theory of the Crows” hinted at the potential that would fully bloom in their subsequent albums.

Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003)

The follow-up album, “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers” (2003), marked a significant step forward in the band’s musical journey. With tracks like “Available” and “Murder Me Rachael,” the album delved deeper into the complexities of love and heartache, which would become recurring themes throughout their discography. The raw emotion in Berninger’s baritone voice, combined with the band’s intricate instrumentation, created a beautiful, cathartic experience that resonated with listeners, including myself.

Alligator (2005)

In 2005, The National released “Alligator,” which became a turning point for the band, garnering critical acclaim and expanding their fanbase. The album showcased a more mature sound and featured some of the band’s most memorable tracks, such as “Abel,” “Secret Meeting,” and the fan-favorite, “Mr. November.” 

Boxer (2007)

The National’s 2007 release, “Boxer,” elevated them to a whole new level of popularity and recognition. The album’s impeccable balance of somber reflection and anthemic hooks made it a fan favorite, and tracks like “Fake Empire,” “Mistaken for Strangers,” and “Slow Show” quickly became staples of the band’s live performances. Here is a Spotify link to the album that I still holds as their peak performance.

Boxer – Live (2017)

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of “Boxer,” The National performed the album in its entirety, breathing new life into the already beloved tracks. The fantastic live version of “Boxer,” recorded in Brussels in 2017, is a testament to the enduring appeal and relevance of the album. This live recording captures the energy and emotion of the band’s captivating stage presence, adding another layer of depth to the experience of “Boxer.”

High Violet (2010)

High Violet” (2010) was the next step in The National’s evolution, expanding their sound palette while maintaining the emotional core that fans had come to know and love. The album features a handful of great and iconic tracks, like “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Afraid of Everyone,” and the goosebump moment of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” I found the album was a beautiful reminder of the power of music to evoke emotions, but it was hard to compare it with “Boxer” because of the quality of that album.

“Leave your home
Change your name
Live alone
Eat your cake
Vanderlyle crybaby cry
Oh, the water’s a-rising
There’s still no surprising you
Vanderlyle crybaby cry
Man, it’s all been forgiven
Swans are a-swimmin’
I’ll explain everything to the geeks”

Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

Trouble Will Find Me” (2013) further solidified The National’s reputation as masters of melancholy and great storytelling. The album’s introspective themes and intricate arrangements created an immersive listening experience that offered comfort and understanding. Standout tracks like “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” “Graceless,” and “I Need My Girl” continued to showcase the band’s talent for creating emotive, evocative music that resonated deeply with fans.

Sleep Well Beast (2017)

Their seventh studio album, “Sleep Well Beast” (2017), marked a departure from their previous works, incorporating electronic elements and experimental sounds while retaining their signature melancholic essence. The album’s release was met with widespread acclaim, and tracks such as “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” “Guilty Party,” and “Carin at the Liquor Store” quickly became fan favorites. Personally I had a hard time initially getting under the skin of the album. But as I spent more time, gradually I found “Sleep Well Beast” to be a bold and refreshing addition to the already impressive discography.

I Am Easy to Find (2019)

Finally, “I Am Easy to Find” (2019) was The National’s most ambitious and expansive work to date. Featuring collaborations with various female vocalists, including Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, and Sharon Van Etten, the album explores themes of identity, relationships, and loss. The stunning 16-track masterpiece showcases the band’s willingness to evolve and experiment while maintaining its emotional core. Tracks like “Rylan,” “Not in Kansas,” and “Light Years” resonated deeply with fans, and further solidified The National’s place in the hearts of listeners around the world.

Throughout their career, The National has consistently pushed boundaries and challenged themselves artistically, resulting in a rich and varied discography that is a testament to their talent and dedication. 

Their music has accompanied me through life’s ups and downs – from the raw emotion of “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers” to the bold experimentation of “Sleep Well Beast,” The National has always been a source of comfort and inspiration.

The National: Live at Radio City Music Hall

I will never forget the tremendous experience I had while watching The National play live on June 16th, 2010. It had been a challenge getting tickets as I am located in Norway, but a friend of mine in NY arranged it for me! And it was surely worth both the wait and the money, as the show was absolutely magical. The National, virtually playing at home, and with Berninger’s voice, the guest artists, the light design of the stage and the energy in the room, with the entire crowd was on its feet, fully engaged with the performance.

The setlist featured a perfect blend of tracks from their (then) new album “High Violet” and popular songs from “Boxer.” The horn section, the Dessner brothers, and the Devendorf brothers all contributed to the greatness of the show. Berninger’s antics, like climbing up the side of the theater to reach the mezzanine and weaving through the crowd while singing “Mr. November,” left the audience in awe.

The opening band, The Antlers, set the stage with their emotional performance, impressing the audience with songs from their album “Hospice.” Their sound filled the large venue, setting the tone for the main event. I have a very personal relationship with the Antlers as I was introduced to them at a show in San Fransisco, where they did a gig with the amazing Au Revoir Simone

As The National took the stage, the atmosphere became even more electrifying. They opened with “Mistaken for Strangers” and quickly moved into fan favorites like “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Squalor Victoria.” The band also paid tribute to Johnny Beach by dedicating “Secret Meeting” to him.

Special guests Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and Sufjan Stevens joined The National on stage for a few songs, including a mesmerizing performance of “Afraid of Everyone.” This collaboration added an extra layer of depth to an already incredible show.

The National continued to delight the audience with classics like “Available” from “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers” and a powerful rendition of “Conversation 16.” Their live performance of “Apartment Story” was particularly memorable and showcased the best of the band.

Throughout the show, The National displayed their versatility, performing both delicate and somber songs like “Daughters of the Soho Riots” and “England,” as well as crowd-pleasing hits like “Fake Empire.” The encore began with the mesmerizing “Runaway,” followed by a stunning rendition of “Lemonworld” that surpassed the album version. The grand finale was an epic performance of “Terrible Love,” which left the audience absolutely awestruck.

Looking back on that night, I am still amazed by the emotional power and the raw energy of The National’s live performance. It was an unforgettable experience that showcased the incredible talent of the band and left a lasting impression on everyone in attendance.

The National has left a mark

With their evocative music and powerful storytelling, The National has left an indelible mark on the hearts of fans, including myself. The fact that they are able to craft intimate, emotional songs that resonate deeply with their listeners speaks volumes about their talent and dedication. As a fan, I eagerly await the upcoming album “First Two Pages of Frankenstein” and the band’s ninth, scheduled to be released on April 28. The singles Tropic Morning News, New Order T-Shirt, and Eucalyptus give a hint of where their musical journey will take them next. I am looking forward to hearing the full album.

Radio City Music Hall – the setlist

Mistaken for Strangers

Anyone’s Ghost

Bloodbuzz Ohio


Secret Meeting

Slow Show

Squalor Victoria

Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks(with St. Vincent)

Afraid of Everyone(with Sufjan Stevens)

Little Faith


Conversation 16

Apartment Story


Daughters of the Soho Riots


Fake Empire




Mr. November

Terrible Love

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