The NationalEdit this event
- Astoria, London »
We like The National at DiS. When we’re not busy giving ourselves toothache with the latest Battles or Deerhoof records, The National offer solace with albums of understated depth that have ‘quality’ written through them like a particularly bitter-tasting stick of rock. An old-fashioned pleasure, if you will. So naturally I was pretty excited by news of this gig, especially when expectations were further raised by reports of an intense performance at Fopp on the previous night.
So... where does it all go wrong? The band deliver a set culled mainly from their new Boxer LP, but where on record these songs hit an elegiac note of restraint, in tonight’s hothouse setting their subtleties are somewhat lost, tending towards the kind of samey procession of downtrodden anthems their critics have chastised them for in the past.
The problem seems to be twofold; first off, Matt Berninger looks visibly uncomfortable with the expectant capacity crowd, pacing the stage like a caged animal and striking frayed postures before deadpanning, “I’m not much of a talker.” Maybe the nerves go some way to explaining his rather clipped vocal delivery, which consistently downplays the melody lines – an endearing trait on record, but here his muttered syllables work to the detriment of the songs’ anthemic qualities.
Perhaps most significantly, though, the orchestral elements which are so integral to the songs on Boxer are virtually inaudible, meaning the arrangements sound alternatively skeletal and, where guitars are used to compensate, just a little cluttered. Hence, ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ sorely lacks the sombre gravitas of its strings, while Aaron Scott’s simulation of the trumpet solo on ‘Fake Empire’ fails to recreate the sense of unexpected release enjoyed by its recorded counterpart.
‘Racing Like A Pro’’s oddly moving portrayal of vacant ambition ("Fifteen blue shirts and womanly hands / you’re shooting up the ladder”) still retains its epiphanic glow, but on the whole it’s left to a handful of old classics to remind us why this band really matter. ‘Abel’ is the electrifying standout and perhaps the only standout ‘moment’ of the night, with Matt immersing himself in the audience for a frenzied refrain of “My mind’s not right!”, a rare instance of triumph on a slightly frustrating evening.
No doubt The National can and have got it much better than this, and with an American tour beckoning before their return to UK shores in mid-July, there’s plenty of time yet for the band to find its feet and make these songs the major concern they clearly deserve to be.
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