Reviewed on Friday February 7 (image by Ashley Mar)
It’s tough for a band like The National to hurtle themselves into megastardom. When you sing in a baritone dirge and open albums in 5/4 time, as Matt Berninger and his bandmates have done on their most recent effort, Trouble Will Find Me, the top of the pops seldom beckon. The closest they’ve had to a hit – in these parts at least – might be ‘Graceless’, the third single from that sixth album, helped along by extensive triple j airplay.
Indeed, when ‘Graceless’ arises late in tonight’s setlist on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House, it lifts the more movement-inclined members of the crowd into a steady jig – their most energetic contribution of the night thus far. Again, that’s part of the problem with The National: they’re not made for dancing, and sometimes their audience can seem full of spectators, not participants.
Except it’s not a flaw at all. The National, chasing fame and number one hits? You may as well ask a painter of portraits to take up manicures. The National are a band of such consistent quality that their setlist cannot possibly disappoint, not even if it were selected at random from their sprawling back catalogue. Tonight it’s ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ that opens the show, followed by ‘I Should Live In Salt’ and a pair of cuts from 2010’s excellent High Violet, ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ and ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’.
Each performance illustrates exactly why The National are the most necessary band of their age – they access a place of which few others can even conceive; a place where the detail of the everyday middle-class experience becomes a character study both universal and intimate. “There isn’t a right answer” to what his songs are about, Berninger told us recently, but of course to seek one would be missing the point. Like a chemical addiction (only safer), these songs don’t have any answers – they just stop you asking the wrong questions.
Instead, the twin guitar attack from Bryce and Aaron Dessner, and the insistent one-two from the rhythm section (drummer Bryan Devendorf, whose brother Scott is tonight replaced by Logan Coale), cast a beautiful storm behind Berninger’s deep grumble. The two-part horn section plays its part, too; its swell in the coda of ‘Pink Rabbits’ offering the night’s most moving illustration of the singer’s words.
It’s not that The National can’t ‘do’ rock’n’roll – Berninger shows no hesitation at jumping into the crowd for ‘Mr. November’ and ‘Terrible Love’ during encores – but with ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ they pare music back to its emotional roots: slow, familiar, together.