The National have always been like this, you know. Finding words for sneaking suspicions. Turning the mundane into magic. Volunteering for ennui duty so you won’t have to.
Even when they still had Cincinnati sweat behind their ears, they were like young academics given free rein to design a curriculum, not in humanities but in humanity. Sign up for their course, word of mouth urged. Wedge yourself into Spaceland in 2005 and end up too drunk on world-weariness to take notes. Although you remember.
The National are tenured now. In April they added a ninth album to their CV, “First Two Pages of Frankenstein,” and on Tuesday night they turned up in the May gray of the Greek Theatre to (again) find ways to make the practiced sound immediate. The bucolic surroundings have served them well in the past — in 2013, in 2016 and in 2019. Tuesday’s show, the first of two consecutive nights at the Greek, was in most ways no different.
Frontman Matt Berninger was in familiar form, stalking the stage, slam-poetrying to the front row, foraying up the north aisle of the venue as far as his mic cable would allow. Because, as any lecturer will tell you, eye contact.
Who knows how many at the Greek had witnessed the National’s dualities before — everyone from Swifties to Sadgirl Nation are on to them (and they play to it). But owing in part to their exceptional new songs (seven from the new albums), it felt like the first time.
Berninger shared an anecdote about how he hurt his voice screaming while making the music video for “Abel” when he could have just lip-synced it. He called “Humiliation” “a song about living in Venice, which I love.” He dedicated the unreleased song “Space Invader (Threaded Gold)” to Mike Mills, who’d said, “sometimes life is like you’re outside a spaceship and not tethered to it.” Their setlist even touched on those early days, with 2004’s “About Today” and 2005’s “Murder Me Rachael.”
And Berninger’s bark and bite during “Mr. November,” comfortably wedged in the encore where it has been for years, showed no signs of the frontman’s 52 years.
The National can make a concert seem like a salon night where all hell breaks loose. On Tuesday, in between the plaintive piano of the night’s (and new album) opener “Once Upon a Poolside” to the show’s (and new album) closer “Send for Me,” both hell and heaven were annotated ably.
Setlist: Once Upon a Poolside, Tropic Morning News, Eucalyptus, New Order T-Shirt, Don’t Swallow the Cap, Bloodbuzz Ohio, I Need My Girl, Abel, Conversation 16, I’ll Still Destroy You, Alien, Grease in Your Hair, Humiliation, Murder Me Rachael, Space Invader (Threaded Gold), Day I Die, Pink Rabbits, Rylan, England, Graceless, Fake Empire. Encore: Weird Goodbyes, Mr. November, Terrible Love, About Today, Send for Me