There is at least a little bit of self-doubt and introversion in all of us. It’s what makes us human, the knowledge that although you can trust yourself, you can’t be sure that events won’t transpire against you, leaving you as befuddled about life as you were at the start. Making some sense of it all is what any pound pinching self help guru will tell you leads to a semblance of what we call happiness. The National, are nigh on the embodiment in musical form of this process.
Their’s is an at times bleak viewpoint, inward looking, yet bursting at the seams with wider connotations, rousing but at the same time sombre. It’s the all too common process of getting your head around things when everything seems fucked up.
For tonight here in London, we can bear witness to a snapshot of the process. This is not emo, not the conventional sense anyway. It isn’t even in the same vein as their most compared to peers and fellow New Yorkers Interpol, who are far more abstract, grandiose and sober. The National are, tonight, very nearly the soundtrack to the most awkward, heartfelt and spirit-crushing moments in your life spun together through guitars, drums, keys and a violin delivered in an authoratative baritone of worldliness.
All this has a lot to do with the part slurred, part obtuse lyrics of vocalist Matt Beringer. His delivery, somewhere between Stephin Merrit of The Magnetic Fields and Nick Cave – the sound of that moment in an evening when you start to analyse your friends and enemies, all in a drunken worldliness that evaporates when you sober up.
Be it the trappings of fame on Mistaken for Strangers or random isolation and detachment on Brainy, his lyrics are just easy enough to relate to, while being gloriously abstract. On Mr November, the first moment tonight where the band raise the tempo and Beringer begins to deliver rather than just orate, you can sense the tension as drums and violin build: “I’m the great white hope,” Beringer croons, and maybe he just is.
Equally, at home with the tenderness as well as the passion, The National have the uncanny ability to create both agitating gloom-rock and delicate ballads. Slow Show, for example is acoustic led, again completely introverted but at heart a love song. While Daughters of the Soho Riots has some of Beriniger best lyrics: “Break my arms around the one I love, be forgiven by the time my lover comes.”
If there is a slight against tonight’s performance, it’s that on these more tender moments, you wish you were in a smaller venue that the bad acoustics and atmosphere-free Astoria. The National can fill the sound, tracks like Abel from 2005’s Alligator, is easily vast enough, but the lyrics and subtle nuances of keys or violin are left to reverberate into nothingness at times.
Even so, if you are struggling to relate to The National’s message, you clearly are far too functional. Best to open your ears and wallow in with the rest of us.