Photo: Madeline Fening
The National performing at Homecoming 2023.
Cincinnati has seen one immersive gallery “experience” after another blow through town recently. Monet, Van Gogh, but I believe The National’s 2023 Homecoming Festival achieved what grabby immersive art shows are drooling to create: subconscious time travel through penetrative nostalgia.
The first time I saw The National live, they looked like babies, and so did I.
It was 2012 at the Emery Theater; a small, gorgeously dilapidated piece of history known for its perfect acoustics. The price of admission was a promise of hours of volunteering for Obama’s re-election campaign. The National was in their Obama era, when life was impossibly lighter, and energy and excitement were in no short supply. While a then-CityBeat review
of the show pointed out not everyone in attendance was an Obama fan, you can only imagine how hard “Mr. November” went in a crowd of drunk 20-somethings.
They played almost everything, but High Violet was their most current album at the time, and the no-skip album full of emotional bangers was top of mind for everyone. The audience was swimming in a soup of optimism for the country and heartbreak for themselves. Trouble Will Find Me was only teased at that point, and most of us had heard “I Need My Girl” via a YouTube video of some late night performance of the unreleased track. (At the time, you converted a YouTube video into an mp3 to put on your phone or iPod). Still, cradling his glass of dark liquor, Matt Berninger pulled out a piece of notebook paper, telling us he needed the words to perform the now-iconic song; it was still so new. Nearly 11 years later at Homecoming 2023, Aaron Dessner joked about the popularity of the track. “We never play this one,” he said before launching into the iconic chords during night two.
While I remember what I wore to the Emery show (a dark bra under a sheer cream H&M flowy “cute top” with skinny jeans), I mostly remember the perfect fall weather, and there’s a neurological reason for that.
say the crisp feeling of fall replacing the heat of summer creates a temporal landmark, a moment that influences how we see and use time. Our neurons are sharper, our moods more optimistic. Our internal cameras record our lives through a lens that sticks with us longer into adulthood, allowing us to recall moments with deep reverence. The National’s choice to hold Homecoming during the changing of the seasons, when cool breezes would waft over the crowd at Smale Park, deepens the immersive experience of listening to songs many already associate with fall. Like listening to “Anyone’s Ghost” during a late night walk to your campus library, or whatever track you were hurting yourself with in 2011.
The autumn of it all, while a deeply penetrative tool, pales in comparison to their unique choice to play one album each night from beginning to end.
The National played High Violet on Friday and Trouble Will Find me on Saturday, in order and in full. I admit, I hadn’t even played these albums entirely in order in years thanks to my dependency on podcasts and playlists to get through the day. Aaron himself pointed out during night one that the band hasn’t thought about the order of these albums in quite some time. Hearing one perfect track lead into another, even with the brief moments of commentary in between, transported me to a time when I listened to these albums like I was sitting down to watch a movie.
Immersive art is more than saying you saw someone or something in person. It’s feeling, even a decade later, the blanket on your college bed, an adolescent lump in your throat, and glancing over your shoulder for that ghost that’s always hard to find.