Matt Berninger moved through a sold-out crowd at South Side Ballroom Saturday night, and you could trace his path only by following the outstretched arms holding up his microphone cord. Even as he was thronged by a respectful audience, he stroked a grown man's face with something like love, guided him gently but firmly out of his way, and assured the rest of us that he "won't fuck us over, I'm Mr. November."
It wasn't what I expected from the Midwestern anti-rock stars, who don't scream anymore on a new album that is far leaner than the others, ornate and exactingly arranged, yet simple and still suffused with all the dread and anxiety we've come to expect. Berninger paced the stage, pulled frequently from a bottle of white wine (I think?), often spitting gouts of it. Far from delivering a removed, cerebral performance, he leaned against the crowd, gripping their hands while he sang about his "terrible love" in that fragile baritone.
One of the night's finest moments came during "Bloodbuzz Ohio," an orchestral arrangement in which the horns, a single, insistent piano note, and Bryan Devendorf's hypnotic drums push toward that grand, swelling crescendo that is The National's trademark. Yet the set pulled heavily from Trouble Will Find Me, their finest accomplishment yet - a meticulous, stripped-down testament to relentless perfectionism. Before a latticework of spotlights, "This Is the Last Time" was an exemplar of the new album's odd time signatures and gorgeous compositions, paired with Berninger's evocative, unromantic lyrics about sex, hangovers and vows not to let it happen again: "Oh, don't tell anyone I'm here/I've got Tylenol and beer."
He's still medicated, compulsive and deeply misanthropic, but also so particular that, rather than muddle past a few false beats, Berninger stopped the band and started over during "Squalor Victoria" and an acoustic version of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks." With the last, he bent over, showed South Side Ballroom the seat of his trousers, torn at the seam during his walkabout, and explained that he had been "distracted by the breeze."