The sad dads live up to their name: ‘The National’ tour opens in Chicago

The National kicked off the international tour for its ninth studio album “First Two Pages of Frankenstein” with a sold-out four-night residency at the Auditorium Theatre. One of the oldest theaters in Chicago set the scene with gold leaf arches and hazy glowing bulbs for a night of melancholy. After all, The National is known for this niche of sad dad rock. This title isn’t a pejorative, but rather an adept description of the music the group creates: It’s the stuff your dad listens to. 

In a sold-out 3,800-person theater, I am still unsure if there was anyone under 30 — the hipsters came out in full force, handlebar mustaches abound, each carrying their own “Sad Dads” tote bag and an overpriced IPA. Although I’m a far cry from their target audience, the messaging and sound they performed were transfixing just the same. Opening with “Once upon a Poolside,” the band set the tone for the night, asking all the questions that race the mind through the disillusionment of a relationship, with haunting vocals. 

The theme of dissolution is more meshed with the identity of the band than a casual listener would realize. In 2020, the band was close to facing its end. Matt Berninger’s struggle with depression caused him to hit a wall, unable to create music and almost swallowed the band whole. This near end is reflected in the opening track of the album and concert. “This is the closest we’ve ever been, and I have no idea what’s happening. Is this how this whole thing is gonna end?” But through the development of “First Two Pages of Frankenstein,” Berninger found himself again, and the band came out as the force they presented on Thursday. 

The night continued with an intertwining of punchy rock and stripped-down ballads, both of which with ever-harrowing lyricism. As The New Yorker put it, “Spend a few minutes in the crowd at a National show and it becomes obvious that the band’s music can bring about a kind of catharsis. It opens up space for mourning — both the big losses and the tiny, mundane, endless ones.” 

The tour’s visuals were limited to hazy disjointed projections of the performers — a hallmark of The National’s performance identity. 

Throughout the night I had to remind myself this isn’t a pop concert — you don’t see The National for the theatrics. I did hold out hope that a recent collaborator, Taylor Swift, would come out to perform her feature on “The Allcott” until I was reminded she was on her tour in Massachusetts. 

This connection to Swift may have been one of the contributing factors to my urgency to see the sad dads in concert. Aaron Dessner, the guitarist and writer for The National has made himself a frequent collaborator of Swift in past years, going as far as the band having a feature on “Coney Island” from Swift’s ninth studio album, “Evermore.” Dessner also made an appearance at “The Eras Tour,” performing “The Great War” with Swift in Tampa. 

I’m unsure if my writing has outed me, but I am not the biggest listener of The National. However, after this show, I will be. There is something fanciful about the lyricism and the emotions they are able to convey, making the audience feel the kind of sadness you see in the eyes of your father. The kind that has been suppressed and is only set free in moments of true desperation. The “sad dads” live up to their nickname.