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It’s become a somewhat trite line of inquiry to fall back on the reveal of dialectics when attempting to map the character of any given subject. Too often, the presence of opposing or contrasting forces are met with a shock and awe that belies the obvious truth that nothing can really exist as an unwavering line of concordant ideals and emotions, and the even simpler truth that people, places, situations and events are very rarely straightforward in their existences. So, it is with some trepidation that I reach for this selfsame method to position The National and their music; it’s hard to ignore the feeling that the very essence of this band exists in, and is created from, the tension generated from opposing forces and the contrasting interpretations that arise when grasping and clawing for a perspective.
Take this as a truth and a line from ‘Afraid of Everyone’ ("With my kid on my shoulders, I try not to hurt anybody I love") becomes the archetypal National lyric, where the image of a dad raising his child up to take a seat around his neck could simply exist as a tender and carefree act of love, but instead is undercut by the insidious context, turning the process into a fearful act of defence from the ineluctable dangers lapping at their feet. At the risk of accusations of nepotism, one of the best summations of The National’s music I’ve ever read came from DiS’s Alexander Tudor when he said that their songs were "perfect summations of what it means to be young, deeply romantic, but also feel terribly old at the same time; terribly cynical about the caverns of unknowing and lurking tragedy that surround every relationship, waiting to destroy it." A different mask to navigate through any situation ("baby, come over, I need entertaining, I had a stilted pretending day") full of fear and self-loathing yet utterly convinced of your potential for something spectacular ("we’re out looking for astronauts, looking for astronauts") painfully aware of the potential to stick or twist on any relationship ("what makes you think I’m enjoying being led to the flood") and perversely comforted by sorrow’s warm embrace ("cover me in rag and bone and sympathy, ‘cause I don’t want to get over you"). The National thrive on this tension between conflicting forces; minds forever split in two, equanimity in the face of impending destruction, panic in the silence of an even keel, and, above all, the understanding that life can only exist in the cracks between choices. And it’s this same dynamic which seems to drive the band’s live performance.
But… before all that; fucking hell it’s hot. So hot that after only one song my friend decides that she needs some air to stem the sweat and I begin to wonder if anyone would notice if I just took my jeans off and watched the gig in my pants. (I decide that I might’ve got away with entering in my pants, but losing the jeans mid-set would probably make me look like a sex-pest taking advantage of the packed venue, or worse, an admirer of the band in all the wrong ways) But in a way, the stifling heat seems appropriate, creating a febrile intensity for the opposites to feed from, the pacier numbers becoming more forceful and the slower songs more brooding. Matt Berninger gives a nod to the heat and makes a request for the ‘corn fans’, before going back to oscillating between defiant howl and desperate croon, assured showman and nerve-ridden wreck. The most piquant musical contrast of the night comes with the juxtaposition of ‘Abel’ and ‘Daughters of the Soho Riots’, a punch followed by a kiss and a scream before the whisper, even more stunning when you take in the run that these two songs come in. ‘Apartment Story’, ‘Abel’, ‘Daughters of the Soho Riots’, ‘England’ and ‘Fake Empire’.
Because this is the key to the night. Although a fine performance, it is the wealth of quality material that really stuns. A few hours after the gig my friend mentions the absence of ‘Geese of Beverley Road’, but it hadn’t even crossed my mind. If a band can play a set that makes you completely forget about one of the songs you were most hoping to hear, it’s a clear sign of an increasingly formidable back-catalogue. The National might persist in existing within the tension between contrasting forces and constantly shifting perspectives, but the quality of their music is unwavering in its relatively simple and straightforward adherence to a fixed and continual brilliance.
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