It’s a testament to The National’s startling emergence from the bleak terrain of the outsider that tonight’s gig begins a run of sold-out shows – two at this venue and two at Alexandra Palace. Few who fall under the spell of this band would think it less than ample reward for their remarkable run of recent albums. Yet, the release of their sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, has divided opinion like none of their albums before. In one camp; those who consider it a sensual, richly-woven selection of carefully tessellated jigsaw pieces, in the other; those who (to quote a recent comment from a fellow Drowned in Sound writer) feel it’s “all a bit Snow Patrol”. Similar statements are floating around the stale beer-tinged air of Manchester Apollo othis evening, though suffixed with “the new stuff will probably work better live”.
To these ears, the opposite occurs tonight. I sit firmly in the camp that considers Trouble Will Find Me to be a cryptic, meticulously measured and finely-filtered record that develops an alchemical cohesion with repeated listens – a true “album” in the wilderness of isolated downloads. Wrenched from this context, their new material can occasionally fall short of the stunningly high benchmark they have assembled for themselves. While ‘Sea of Love’ and ‘Humiliation’ grow claws in the live environment, ‘Demons’ and ‘I Need My Girl’ sit uncomfortably without being nestled within the sum of their parts, with ‘Slipped’ being particularly bloodless tonight. Rather than detract from the experience however, they simply secure the thought that the recent record is one for appreciating on its own individual merits, rather than as a tool of comparison against the more familiar material. That said, a gloriously woozy ‘Pink Rabbits’ and a quite spectacular, tumultuous ‘Graceless’ belie that logic with the nagging sense that the latter is one of the best three tracks of 2013 growing by the moment.
From a musical perspective, The National now operate on their own instinctive level: a tightly-wound balance between beauty and fury continuously shifting with a fluid dynamism, as illustrated perfectly by the constant three-way battle tonight between Bryce Dessner’s jagged, jarring lead lines, Bryan Devendorf’s hypnotic drum-punches and Matt Berninger’s voice – stripped of the darker brooding recorded overtones and given license to bark, scream and strain as he slowly warms into his role. Initially shuffling around centre-stage, he progresses over the course of the evening to prowling like an angry lion, clambering to the side of the stage and then eventually disappearing into the crowd to sing with them. As time progresses, the screams get louder until his broken, ragged cries are fill floor to ceiling and wall to wall. How he maintains this over an entire tour is a mystery. But all we care of is here and now – the emotion touching our rawest nerves. With a brass section adding colour and volume to the sound – simultaneously funereal and celebratory – and the darting, insistent rhythms from Aaron Dessner and Scott Devendorf, it’s progressive, colourful and expansive without ever losing sight of the sinew and honed muscle beneath the skin. Musically, this is a band as in touch with their audience as closely as they are with their own jagged, raw chemistry.
With regard to the rest of the set, what you are fundamentally experiencing is a peerless masterclass of post-millennial American alt-rock. The angular and stretched tension of ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ and the pent-up frustration of ‘Squalor Victoria’ (ending with Berninger literally screaming the title into the microphone before throwing it away) bolstering the devastating bittersweet of ‘Apartment Story’ and ‘Slow Show’. The turbulent build and climactic stagger of ‘England’ and the vicious, cinematic fury of ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ rising from the smouldering beauty of ‘Afraid of Everyone’ and ‘Sorrow’ If there’s any criticism, it’s the lack of material from Alligator (represented solely through a quite staggering ‘Mr November’) but that only goes to prove how far this band have come, that they can leave out songs of the calibre of ‘Abel’, ‘All The Wine’ and ‘The Geese of Beverley Road’ that 95% of bands would keep as their closer forever. As a performance, it’s a remarkable lesson in how a band can rise from anonymity to claiming sheer adulation through never compromising, never settling for too long and above all, knowing where the heart; though never straying too far from the gut-punch. As tonight closes with the entire band stood at the front of the stage – unplugged and largely unmiked – singing ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ as if it’s the closing-up of the world and being nearly drowned out by the entire auditorium singing every word back, it’s difficult not to get entirely swept up in such a powerful, swirling emotional moment of connection. The National demand emotion to exist, but in the live setting, they give it back with interest and dividends paid handsomely.