ACL Live Review: The National

U2’s arena rock heirs get obtuse

“I’m not actually that tired,” joked the National frontman Matt Berninger after crawling on the ground during “Graceless” from 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. “That’s just showbiz stuff.”

Photo by Gary Miller

Berninger’s tongue-in-cheek stage antics centered attention during the National’s late-afternoon set on Friday, but the guitars were the real standout, even amidst the addition of a trombone, trumpet, auxiliary percussionist, and guest vocals from Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry. Although the Cincinnati-born fivepiece remains known best for gloomy Americana, its vintage guitars – looking like they’d been through a few car wrecks – sounded pristine, especially on a festival stage. The riffs alone make an argument for the National as unlikely heirs to U2’s arena rock throne.

Although the instrumentation sounded immaculate, Berninger’s professorial sense of self awareness deflated the emotional power of the songs. When he leaped beyond the crowd barrier to take a selfie video during “Day I Die,” the move felt like a parody. He was having fun, but it felt like it was at our expense.

Naturally, his signature vocal style of deadpan ennui is better suited for dark rooms than sunny fields. As such, the contrast between a beautiful day, Berninger’s bemused attitude, and the obtuse seriousness of his lyrics weren’t always an obvious fit.

As they tore into their breakout 2007 single “Fake Empire,” that dissonance made me think, what the hell does it even mean to be “half awake in a fake empire”? Based on the enthusiasm of the huge crowd singing along, I seemed to be the only one who didn’t know.

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The National, ACL Fest 2018, ACL Music Fest 2018, Matt Berninger, Lauren Mayberry, Chvrches, U2

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