As a prelude to the release of their upcoming album Sleep Well Beast on September 8th, the National held a “Guilty Party”, a two night invitation event at Basilica Hudson, an old-ish building on the edge of town owned by Auf der Maur and her husband Tony Stone. The structure itself is stunning in a post-Industrial sort of way and has gone through the type of cosmetic sprucing that comes off as sympathetic rather than inevitable. It has real heart, and as soon as I walked into its central space it made complete sense why this was all taking place here. In the middle of the room was a circular stage with a series of four smaller attendant stages around it, one in each corner.
It’s decently easy to profile a fan of the National. The dark denim budget for the entire group was through the roof, and there were enough black ink tattoos to cover a school bus worth of Queequegs. On the other hand, the typical fare for an article like this didn’t seem to quite fit. Sure, the whole scene could be taken as a mid-millennial self-meme-ing extravaganza if someone needed it to be that, but the band and their music and the oeuvre here made it impossible to give a fuck about the predictability of it. The National’s post-irony Bleed Rock has always breathed a kind of aching safety into their fans and seeing it made manifest so brilliantly beneath a backdrop of the Hudson valley was as nourishing as it was breathtaking.
They opened the show with “Nobody Else Will Be There,” a more insular and aggressive take on “Fake Empire”’s same silver city-ish longing for a thing you already have. The piano part is stupidly good and you know 45 seconds in or so that it’s going to be kicking the shit out of you during a late night back porch solo sit sometime soon. It’s a song that only they could write and, as they play their way through the rest of their new record, it becomes obvious that the rest of Sleep Well Beast’s songs are the same. I don’t mean stylistically so much as I mean that they're all songs that only this band could make. “The Day I Die” is vintage Berninger realism. “Turtleneck”, a song with more out and out guitar rock in it than maybe any song they’ve ever written, came off as an obvious homage to the Grateful Dead. “Guilty Party” played live pushed Basilica Hudson briefly into feeling like an actual church.
The gift of the whole thing, aside from getting to be there with them, was watching the rough drafts of playing these new songs live come to life. Most of them are super tight and a couple of them still need some work. And that tension was part of what made the event feel pure. Live rock is never really about precision so much as letting the energy breathe a little more than a studio allows. You’re giving up a little of the trim to hear them play it fucking loud.
Matt told me once in an interview that his favorite album of theirs was always the one they had just put out, and that’s something that's stuck with me. Emotional and contextual connections with specific albums aside, they really have kept getting better with each release for almost 16 years now. And after hearing them play the new stuff this weekend, it’s obvious that they’ve done that once again. Maybe it was all the wine, or the fallout from my divorce, but Sleep Well Beast and its requisite scenes shook me to my core. Hearing him sing that he’s been mothering himself to bits was a brick through the window and the rest of the record felt like it was kicking in my door. The National will always be important because they have the tenderness to grieve and teach our darker parts to sing. There is a purity to their work that comes off as something closer to self acceptance than any sort of clinging to their own self-generated scene. And their latest work has a darker ache and a carries a deeper type of pain. It’s the sort that comes from learning to live beneath an infinite, impossible thing.