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The National - Alexandra Palace, London - November 13 2013 (Live Review)

Monday, 18 November 2013 Written by Tom Seymour

Halfway through the National’s first London gig on their Trouble Will Find Me tour, the screens flanking the stage hone in on the words Matt Berninger has written on the palm of his hand.

Berninger’s hanging on to his microphone for dear life, eyes squeezed shut, letting that baritone melt over Alexandra Palace. Everyone cranes their necks to see what he could possibly have written to himself, but he clenches his fist tight, removing it from view.

It felt like an indicative moment. The National are the guarded, undemonstrative architects of deeply demonstrative music. They play, but they don’t exactly perform.

They sing, seriously, about commitment and sacrifice and giving up on parts of yourself for someone else, rather than the usual bedpost-notching “walk away and don’t look back,” bilge that characterises so much guitar music. It’s rock for those in a relationship, soul for those who worry for theirs, relief for the showered and blue-blazered.

They formed 14 years, six studio albums and two EPs ago. As they remind us in lyrics and asides, they’ve played their fair share of venues, ascending to this cathedral-like stage by increments so slow they were close to packing it all in. “You said it would be painless,” Berninger calls out on Pink Rabbits. “It wasn't that at all.”

Originally from Ohio, and now settled in New York, the National have made it this far by composing songs that strike uniquely at a recently departed, not-quite youth, of the stresses of trying to live the good life in a pressure-cooker city, of what to do with dark thoughts, of feeling cut off, of trying, and sometimes failing, to leave your own head and open up to someone else. “I have only two emotions,” Berninger sings on opener, Don’t Swallow The Cap. “Careful fear and dead devotion.”

Although it’s not without blemishes (“Well I fucked that up,” Berninger scolds himself after Lean, the band’s contribution to the recent Hunger Games film), the National imbue their back-catalogue with inventive complexity, letting their quieter tunes build to unexpected levels of intensity that throb at the walls of Alexandra Palace, as if they could open the doors and the whole of London would hear.

As they weave the many hits of ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ -  Graceless, This Is The Last Time, I Should Live In Salt - with old favourites like Fake Empire and Mistaken For Strangers, and even older tunes for the real faithful, like Baby We’ll Be Fine and Available, the sheer skill and musicianship starts to burst through their unobtrusive personas.

The double brother axis, the Devendorfs on bass and drums and the Dessners on guitar, spark off each other as if by telepathy. Squalor Victoria - clocking in at three minutes on ‘Boxer’ - becomes a pulsating, tribal, drum-fuelled epic, demonstrating why the Zen-like Bryan Devendorf has claim to be the best live drummer in the world. Aaron Dessner, who composes the National’s melodies before unleashing Berninger’s melancholy, proves what a perceptive and subtly expressive guitarist he is.

But Berninger, the unlikely rock star, fuses the band together. They play Terrible Love as an encore, and he goes walkabout. Climbing into the crowd, he loses his microphone, leaving Aaron Dessner to sing on stage. Dessner’s got a lovely voice, but the song loses its depth, texture, tangibility without Berninger’s magma-like croon. They end with their unamplified version of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, twin guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner on acoustics, a couple of horns, and a few thousand people, invested in every word, providing a chorus.

 

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