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- The National »
By conventional criteria The National shouldn’t be so compelling. They look absolutely workaday, their stage presence can best be described as awkward and their songs are heavy with hurt, melancholia and crippling introspection. This is not the stuff of which pop dreams are made. However, whilst often carrying a sense of loneliness, their music finds them always ready to reach out, to connect. Powerfully. Perhaps their burgeoning appeal can be put down to the fact that they’re almost wilfully contrary to what we’re told we should expect from a contemporary rock band, their lack of gloss only serving to focus our attention more fully on the music, on songs that are clotted with emotion and dark melody.
Opening act The Jane Bradfords make no secret of the debt their own music owes to that of the Brooklyn-based headliners. They too write songs that burn with a furnace-like intensity; sorrow and joy tangled up in their crisp synthesizer motifs and knotted guitars. Frontman Deci Gallen has one of those voices, sepulchral, echoing mournfully, a ghost amongst the gravestones. His vocal ensures that even their most pop moment, the generous and unashamed love song ‘Golden Ticket’ has an undercurrent of hurt and longing. Still, the deceptively simple and luscious melody quickly snares the audiences’ attention, ever more people shuffling stagewards.
There are hints here and there of New Order, Stereolab and Arcade Fire, but even when they pilfer they do so with panache. The vulnerability that is evident in so much of what The Jane Bradfords do is dispelled with the full on charge of ‘Fight Them All’, the bayonet jab of the guitars boosted by synthesizers that whiz like a battalion of UFOs, words tossed like hand grenades, primed to repel the doubters. It’s a defiant performance, not spectacular or without fault, but a small victory nonetheless.
Slowly, hesitantly, The National’s Matt Berninger takes to the stage. He looks like a condemned man being pushed in front of the firing squad. As the opening notes of ‘Start A War’ chime out he stands, eyes closed, clutching the microphone, conspicuously uncomfortable. Watching him, increment by painful increment, overcome his anxieties is an integral dramatic component to any National performance. By the end of the evening he’ll be throwing himself out to the audience, hands and heart outstretched, buffeted this way and that like a ship in a storm, caught up in the sheer emotion of it all.
It already feels a cliché to say it but, yes, they are majestic. Though the sound tonight is less than perfect – the lovingly worked out intricacies that help make the National so interesting are often lost – the glory of songs such as ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ and ‘Baby, We’ll Be Fine’ prove irrepressible, the seething rhythms of the former aggravating the lurking sense of menace, the latter revelling in a gradual build towards its sun-dappled chorus.
I’ll not lie: often it’s hard to decipher just what in hell’s name Matt Berninger is singing about, fragments just fragments, these aren’t songs that lend themselves to literal interpretation, that are willing to yield all their mysteries. And that’s just fine. Caressing phrases in that echoing baritone, Berninger’s voice alone instils meaning, what you can’t mistake is the emotion, the longing, the anxiety, the hurt and disappointment and, occasionally, the hope. The crowd tap into this, projecting freeze frames from their own lives onto ‘Abel’ and ‘Squalor Victoria’, the guitars frenzied, violins scraping in here and there, the percussive swarm of the bass and drums bringing things to a heady crescendo.
I’m sorry if this sounds like the superlative haemorrhaging bluster of an over-stimulated music writer but The National are astoundingly good. Are they innovative, are they reinventing rock? Not at all. But they are damn fine musicians, capable of creating songs like ‘Secret Meeting’ and the closing ‘Mr November’, songs that can captivate an entire audience without recourse to banality, that are intelligent, impassioned and pierce to the marrow. It’s more than enough.
Photo:* Michael Kerr*
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