I wasn’t able in the end to go to see The National at Shepherd’s Bush Empire last night, but Chris Robert’s nobly came off the sub’s bench to file this report.
SHEPHERDS BUSH EMPIRE
Wednesday, November 7 2007
On the first of two nights here, The National are celebrating reaching another level. Even a year ago they were “just” a cult band whose intense, interior weaving of song and structure was loved passionately by devotees and ignored by those averse to subtlety. Their Brooklyn-via-Ohio career was doggedly, if not spectacularly, picking up momentum. Since the release of this year’s Boxer album, however, they’ve become a music-lover’s benchmark, an acid test.
They’re the kind of band now that start debates and by which people judge their friends. Boxer, the ultimate slow-burner, refused to take the obvious building-block route of being a poppier Alligator, but those who “get” it – and there’s a lot to “get” under all that implicitness and understatement and existential angst – think those who don’t should be packed off to the nearest village that’s short one idiot. Perhaps only American Music Club, of their ilk, make you (want to) work so hard to hear the penny drop, keep you waiting so long to see the sun rise. Once the scales fall away, these songs are indecently addictive.
Like Leonard Cohen or Morrissey or Raymond Carver, The National are usually painted as miserable sods, but in fact thrive on the romantic grace note that comes after the shrug of defeatism. The heady euphoria and emotional liberation that arrive after giving up is their meat and drink. There is so much cleverly-gauged, self-effacing comedy in lyricist Matt Berninger’s apparent despair, and once you’ve twigged that, their live performances are exhilarating. His recorded persona is an Everyman pushing a rock up a cliff; onstage he‘s shy except when flailing around like a tall bird with wounded wings.
The band strain rock of the pale, lean, Joy Division/early U2 variety into fresh, troubled territories. That guitarist Bryce Dessner plays with Philip Glass is only about the twelfth most interesting thing going on here amid the controlled clash of elevation and dislocation. A mammoth USA tour has strengthened rather than tired them: you can, for the first time, envision them playing stadiums. It’d be no weirder a transition than that made by REM or U2. The interplay between the Devendorf brothers’ rhythms and the Dessner twins’ guitars is honed to perfection: every dynamic counts, every surge thrills.
The Dessners’ mother is present. It’s “the first time she’s seen us outside Ohio“, they announce bashfully. “And nobody comes to see us in Ohio, so she was finding this a great event. Until she was thrown out for smoking drugs.” After Letterman appearances and playing with Springsteen, The National are not as timid as they were. The audience knows every word now: singing along to Matt’s mumbles they come across like a mash-up of Confucius and Bukowski.
They start with “Start A War”. Padma Newsome’s violin takes a florid solo in “Racing Like A Pro”. “Wasp’s Nest” is like Jimmy Webb’s gushier excesses toned down by a benign Harry Nilsson, while new single “Apartment Story” gets a crowd bellowing about hiding away behind locked doors watching TV. Don’t be last to hear the secret: The National are going global.