Dream Setlist: The National

Dream Setlist: The National

Another day, another cancelled show in 2020. Brian Fox recalls the 13 year arch of one of his favorite bands in this week’s dream setlist, in honor of his most anticipated show of the year.

Last year, at the end of the sweatiest concert I’ve ever experienced, I saw The National play at Rock the Garden in Minneapolis. Plenty of great bands played that day--Heart Bones, The Beths, Courtney Barnett--as the temperature rose into the 90s with stifling humidity. At the end of the night, The National fulfilled a dream of mine. I had listened to their 2017 album Sleep Well Beast over and over and checked every tour update, desperate for them to come to the Twin Cities, but they never did. Then the band released I Am Easy to Find in 2019, and I was overjoyed to see them on the Rock the Garden line-up. It’s easily one of my top concerts.

I became obsessed with The National in college for many reasons: Matt Berninger’s voice and lyrics, the way the Dessners and the Devendorfs craft both intricate and rocking as well as spare and haunting sounds, and the melancholy yet hopeful feeling they effortlessly evoke in me. I worked my way from The National to Trouble Will Find Me, digesting each album and enjoying the 13 year evolution of their sound. I listened to Sleep Well Beast on repeat when it dropped, and I was blown away by how marvelously the talented female vocalists featured on 2019’s I Am Easy to Find, including Lucy Hannigan, Gail Ann Dorsey, and Mina Tindle, meshed with the band, adding new levels of intricacy and beauty to the music. 

In early 2020, The National announced they’d be in the Twin Cities again, and I couldn’t believe my luck. Two years in a row I’d get to experience a driving, frenzied, emotional explosion of a concert. We all know the story well by now, but that concert has been cancelled. So instead, here’s a setlist for my perfect concert by The National. Some of the songs below I saw them play in 2019, and many more of them I hope to see live.

1. City Middle

Starting off a concert with a melancholy song can be an unconventional choice, but their melancholy has always been a huge part of my love for the band. “City Middle” has a quiet driving quality with lyrics that hypnotically repeat and shift and repeat again. They’ve opened with it live before, and I’d be thrilled to see it myself.

2. Where is Her Head

After a calm opening, “Where is Her Head” from I Am Easy to Find would get the crowd going. The drums propel the song forward while the intertwining vocal performances build on each other and give the whole song an irresistible momentum. I saw it performed with Mina Tindle and Zoe Randall, and the crowd couldn’t resist the energy and the movement.

3. Lit Up 

This explosive song from Alligator first showed me how well The National can cut loose and let it rock. With the guitar lines and pianos pounding away and forceful singing, this song would only get bigger live and get the crowd leaping and screaming along to “You’re the low life of the party, bad blood/Bad blood for everybody/I’m in control and I believe.”

The National - Lit Up

4. Don’t Swallow the Cap 

This is another song with an undeniable drive. The vocal performance may be more mellow, but Matt Berninger has great onstage charisma, and it’s hard to keep your eyes off him. He dances and works the crowd masterfully. It’s easy to get lost in his lyrics, especially this journey of word association ending in some wonderful lines: “And if you want/to see me cry/play Let It Be/or Nevermind.” Unsurprisingly, The National has a fair few songs that make me cry.

The National - Don't Swallow The Cap (Live on 89.3 The Current)

5. Wasp Nest

I’ve loved this sweet little song from the 2004 EP Cherry Tree since my first listen. The jingling bells and acoustic guitars come together in a beautiful melody, while the lyrics undercut the sweetness with lines like “You’re poison in a pretty glass/You’re a wasp nest.” Songs about the contradictions of love always cut me deep, and this one manages to wreck me every time.

6. Secret Meeting

In case it wasn’t obvious, Alligator is one of my all time favorite albums. And the opening track always lets me know I’m in for a wild melancholy ride. The song swings from full to sparse to bursting again, just how I like it. I’ve always enjoyed how I can’t really understand the backing vocals in the second half as they get louder and faster and more akin to shouting, adding another instrument to the bursting crescendo at the end. 

7. Guilty Party

The opening synths create such a mood as they give way to the drums and return again. There’s so much tension, but it’s all hidden below the surface. The lyrics are more narrative, telling a story of guilt and sadness, but the line “It’s nobody’s fault/There’s no guilty party” always sneaks up on me. It’s not a happy song, but it manages to find these bright moments in the sorrow.

The National - 'Guilty Party'

8. Graceless

I’m a sucker for the bass line that opens the song, especially how it never quite lets itself fade into the background. The song only grows, finally opening into a massive eruption after a fake-out just before the second verse. I’ve seen it live once, but I couldn’t imagine not seeing it again. Jumping in a crowd of people roaring “Don’t let them die on the vine it’s a waste/Grace” at the top of their lungs is such a liberating feeling, and it all starts with that bass line.

The National - Graceless

9. Not in Kansas

This sparse, sprawling song from I Am Easy to Find hypnotizes me every time with its strange mix of anxiety and nostalgia. Alternating near-spoken lyrics by Matt Berninger with gorgeous sections from Gail Ann Dorsey, Lisa Hannigan, and Kate Stables singing in choral unison, it’s been a highlight of the album since my first listen. The lyrics are sometimes venomous and harrowing, but sometimes they’re quietly joyful. 

10. Carin at the Liquor Store

This powerful track off of Sleep Well Beast is an unconventional sort of love song. I’m not sure what produces the feeling of desperation in this track. It feels loose, yet urgent with a hypnotic piano line and some excellent guitar work.  It would keep the energy of the show moving after the mellow “Not in Kansas” while still giving time to breathe and sway.

The National - 'Carin at the Liquor Store'

11. I Need My Girl

Any National setlist has a balance of their liberating, loud rockers and their quieter, more thoughtful tunes. This beautiful, yet haunting song from Trouble Will Find Me has always stuck out. The National excel at morphing their songs into something different than their album versions, and I’d be excited to see how this one would evolve onstage.

The National - "I Need My Girl"

12. Turtleneck

Something of an oddity for The National, this song just rocks and came out of the blue for me on Sleep Well Beast. With squealing, crunchy guitars and delirious vocals from Matt Berninger, this one would explode onstage, and I’d be going wild. It would be a shock after some more thoughtful songs, but a kick of rocking energy would get everyone going.

13. Bloodbuzz Ohio

I’ve always had a soft spot for this song. It’s one of the band’s most well-known tracks, but I can’t hold that against it. It has those wonderful word association lyrics that feel perfect even if you don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s not altogether happy, but it’s not sad. After seeing it live once, I can’t wait for that wave of joy to hit me again as I shout “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees.”

The National - Bloodbuzz Ohio (Official Video)

14. I’ll Still Destroy You

My perennial favorite off of Sleep Well Beast, I could never quite pinpoint why. The lyrics have a strange nostalgic feeling, but it’s hard to pin down exactly. I love the way the song shifts from a busy wall of intertwining instruments to a more quiet reflection and back again before exploding in an unexpected crescendo at the end. Who knows how much bigger it would be live.

The National - 'I'll Still Destroy You'

15. Start a War

Like “Wasp Nest,” the plucked guitar in this track from 2007’s Boxer provides a lovely base for lyrics that are not so gentle. Especially when the low drumming begins, it’s hard to tell if the sweetness or ominous feelings will win out. That faint guitar riff that gets layered heightens the tension, and the ending never quite decides if it’s all together hopeful or foreboding. It always leaves me with questions.

16. Sea of Love

With all my talk of crescendos, “Sea of Love” had to show up. From the very beginning, the pounding drums refuse to let this song drag, and once you’ve heard the quiet moment of “If I leave here/trouble will find me,” you can only go up and out from there. And the line: “Hey Joe sorry I hurt you but/ they say love is a virtue don’t they?” is a killer. It gets me every time.

The National - "Sea Of Love"

17. Slow Show

A quieter song, the lyrics from this track off of Boxer always hit me hardest. They’re more direct than most of their songs, detailing feelings of public anxiety and nervousness. It’s a great journey through the song, and the final verses referencing an early song, “29 Years,” never fail to give me that emotional gut punch. It’s a simple stanza but “You know I dreamed about you/for 29 years/before I saw you,” never fails to get me. This might be one of those songs to put on to make me cry.

18. Murder Me Rachael

I liked this track off Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers from 2003 well enough when I first heard it, but the live version included on the Cherry Tree EP became an instant favorite of mine. It was the first time I realized how awesome a live National show would be. The simple lyrics repeat and intensify until Matt Berninger ends the song screaming at the top of his lungs. Just listening to the recording gives me butterflies. If I could see this one live, I would lose my mind.

19. Mr. November

This song has a regular place just before the end of their setlists, and I’m not about to change it. I’m a sucker for Alligator, and the live energy the band pumps into this one blows me away. At Rock the Garden, hearing them blast the opening chords and seeing Matt Berninger jump into the crowd to wander and sing his heart out reduced me to a wild fanboy, jumping and screaming “I won’t fuck us over/I’m Mr. November.” I didn’t want it to end.

The National - Mr. November (Live Uncut)

20. Terrible Love

This one off 2010’s High Violet ends many of their setlists, and it’s a wild time. It’s a rolling, momentous song driven by that bass drum pedal beat. The recorded version grows and swells, but their live performance cranks each surge up until the ending of their show is a colossal wave drowning you in sound. It’s a wonderful way to (almost) end a great night.

The National - Terrible Love


21. American Mary

When I saw the band they had no encore, closing an outdoors festival with a firm ending time. But if a huge explosive show could end with a quiet return to stage and a song off their self-titled debut, I would be beyond thrilled. They haven’t played it live often, but it’s always stuck with me. It’s a more casual song. It feels more like a bar band at the end of the night. With loose guitar strumming along with a piano line and some electric noodling, the song always briefly comes alive with the chorus. Loud and bursting, a sign of many of their songs to come, this song sort of sways along to a mellow conclusion. It’d be great to sing along to the chorus while enjoying the softer verses, bringing a stunning night to a close.

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