Barnett shines while the National introduces more light into its shadowy compositions
The rainstorm that shrouded Columbus much of Monday afternoon cleared well before the National hit the stage at a packed Express Live outdoors. The break in the weather served as a nice meteorological counterpoint to the Cincinnati-formed band’s most recent album, I Am Easy to Find, released earlier this year, which distances itself some from the self-loathing, doubts and depressive streaks that have long shaped its work. With these emotions falling deeper into the background, singer Matt Berninger and Co., given an assist by touring vocalist Zoe Randell of Australian band Luluc, explored some of those aspects that allow romantic relationships to carry on amid life’s many hardships.
Throughout the evening, Berninger focused on setting aside petty grievances (“There’s a million little battles that I’m never gonna win anyway,” he offered on the new album’s title track) and continually reminded himself of his reasons for holding tight. “It’s still always you every morning I think of no matter what/How I want you here,” he crooned alongside Randell on “Oblivions.” Even when the frontman drifted slightly amid “The Pull of You” — “Don’t let me get in the way of you finding everything,” he sang, positioning himself as a weighty albatross — he was eventually drawn back in by the cosmic thread connecting the pair.
But while the musicians have allowed more sun to bleed into recent material, the band still favors the shadowy corners — a predilection Berninger hinted at on “Light Years,” a song which posits that even love can’t fill all of those cracks within us. “I watch the sky go from black to gray,” he sang. Baby steps, in other words.
Musically, a number of the songs off I Am Easy to Find were similarly monochrome, often falling back on plodding tempos and soundtrack-y flourishes — fitting, considering the album originated alongside a short film of the same name made for the band by director Mike Mills (“20th Century Women”). Absent these moving images, songs like “So Far So Fast” played more like vaguely pleasant background music — better suited to folding laundry or doing dishes than the outdoor pavilion setting.
Regardless, the two-hour set included moments of staggering beauty (“Wasp Nest” wrapped its tale of “a storm in a cocktail dress” in comparatively fragile acoustic instrumentation), stirring, emotionally shattered ballads (“Pink Rabbits”) and even boldly political statements. “Fuck this government taking women’s rights away,” Berninger said introducing the National’s anthem, “Fake Empire,” which played like a pointed rejoinder to the conservative administrations dictating current policy on both the state and national level.
Courtney Barnett explored similar issues of body autonomy and feminism in her blistering, whiplash-inducing opening set. “Men are scared that women will laugh at them,” the Australian singer, songwriter and guitarist sang amid slashing guitars on “Nameless, Faceless,” aimed partially at the types of anonymous online commenters you might find beneath a review such as this one. “Women are scared that men will kill them.”
Elsewhere, Barnett offered, “I’ve got better things to do than shave my legs” on “Small Talk” and brushed aside those who tested her limited patience on the corrosive “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” where the guitars howled just barely louder than she did.
For the most part, though, Barnett tended to sing in a conversational tone, repeatedly transforming seemingly dull everyday situations — watching the grass grow, visiting open houses — into deeply realized tragi-comedies.
On “Depreston,” Barnett toured a home for sale, struck by the beauty of its gardens and the ample, two-car garage (“Or a lot of room for storage if you just have one,” as she put it). Gradually, though, the vestiges of the previous owner’s existence distracted from this consumerist, HGTV-esque gawking, introducing a deep sadness that left the musician feeling like the best hope for a fresh start was to bulldoze the house and build anew.
“Avant Gardener” started in similarly mundane fashion, with Barnett pulling up weeds in the garden, before an asthma attack kicked in, causing her to imagine her own death as she fumbled with her inhaler, eventually hitching a ride in an ambulance. “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar,” she sang. At least in Barnett’s case, this holds true.