The National Are Completely Inoffensive ... Which Is What Makes Them So Offensive
Here's the deal with The National: you either embrace "Mr. November" as a personal anthem and the rest of their catalog for its completely approachable and expertly helmed agenda in Almost Arena Rock, or you don't. You're either with Matt Berninger when he starts screaming as though he accidentally stepped on lit coals, or you're recoiling because you think the lead singer thrashing about up there is about to break his glasses in the middle of a seizure. You either keep tabs on who guitarist Aaron Dessner is working with this week (dude's an amiable producer whose credits include Sharon Van Etten's Tramp and Local Natives' Hummingbird in addition to the majority of The National's releases) or you get confused about which Dessner brother is the one who's making a guitar do very weird things for no explicable reason, 'cause there are two.
You're either a National fan or you're not. They're that polarizing, despite their wholly inoffensive contributions to the indie rock canon, and their Saturday Night Live debut was no exception.
They're not unlike Arcade Fire when it comes to the mainstream asking "Who the hell are these guys?!": though Alligator is an oft-lauded opus and Trouble Will Find Me received a warm reception upon its release last spring, they've kept their heads down and out of the spotlight as they've plowed through countless international tours and bouts of productivity in the studio. Unlike Imagine Dragons, Bastille, Kings of Leon and the other acts we've seen this season on SNL, The National are seemingly simmering outside of mainstream acclaim despite the fact that they've been playing together for nearly two decades and have a bunch of records to prove it. The set they delivered on SNL was absolutely on par with the performances put forth by the aforementioned chart juggernauts--and that's not saying a whole lot, as most of those were indisputably lame. If you love the driving, sliding build of "Graceless," you probably loved it on SNL, but raised an eyebrow at Berninger's outbursts and the weird tech glitches that peppered the final measures of the song.
If you were expecting raucous rock n' roll behavior, you'd be disappointed and unfamiliar with the band before you, as that's not exactly The National's bag. The energy springs forth from the guitar strings--not necessarily frenzied pacing or stage antics from those playing them--and that can come across as sleepy and boring to the unitiated or uninterested. In short, if you hated The National before, "Graceless" gave you enough gasoline to fuel that fire. If you loved them, you cringed at the tech snafus and belted along with Berninger's shouting from your couch.
The same went for "I Need My Girl," though Berninger's tortured intensity was enough to hold the interest of even the most aloof National basher for at least thirty seconds. Between the sheer poetry of the building din and Bryce Dessner's inventive guitar acrobatics, "I Need My Girl" is one of the most sincere performances SNL has seen this season and remained true to The National's live chops. (And seriously, I don't think anyone's ever worked two guitars at the same time like that, at SNL or elsewhere on a late night stage.)
Despite proving they are, in fact, rock musicians and able ones at that, there was some confusion as to whether or not the dudes in The National were a band or a collection of dads and college professors who like to pick up guitars occasionally. That was the joke everyone kept making, anyway. (It was funny the first nine times, guys.)
Lena herself started things off on Twitter by admitting that she was moved to tears by The National's performance during rehearsal. Others joked about what they felt was a needlessly excessive number of band members, the fact that they look like teachers, and their advanced age. Oh, and singer Matt Berninger's uncanny resemblance to Bryan Cranston and Phil Hartman. Very creative, guys: