The National are currently enjoying what Pet Shop Boys’ lead singer and general pop guru Neil Tennant would call their ‘imperial’ phase. Trouble Will Find Me, their fifth studio album, has consolidated the success of 2010’s High Violet and their 2007 breakout record Boxer. Its surging melodies, angular and chunky rhythms and fractured and condensed lyrics (courtesy of frontman Matt Berninger’s husky baritone) has cemented their role as the thinking music fan’s sensitive alt-rock band of choice.
As a result the band sweeps into these two sold-out London dates as part of an epic global jaunt that feels less like a tour and more like a lap of honour. Tonight they deliver a professional, compelling set which covers most of the high ground of their last three records, plus a few choice picks from earlier in their career, backed up by thrilling digital projections that serve up screeds of glitchy data, enigmatic visuals and HD close-ups.
Musically, they’re brutally efficient, their core drums ‘n’ guitars line-up fleshed out by brass and strings, and, all in all, they do a pretty sterling job of filling the massive space of Alexandra Palace. This is A Good Thing because, tonight despite its grand exterior, the Palace is a pretty grim place, chilly and cavernous with stale, greasy odours from the burger and tortilla vans parked in the lobby wafting into the hall during the show.
Yet, despite some post-show grumbles on the internet, about the mix, it all sounded pretty good to me. The loud, punchy sound had plenty of oomph while letting the band’s vocal harmonies and Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s twin lead guitar work shine through.
It was the newer tunes that worked the best. The urgent, brooding melodies of ‘Sea of Love’ and ‘I Should Live in Salt’ were perfectly tooled for this larger canvas. Quieter tracks like ‘I Need My Girl’ delivered beautifully-crafted emotional hit.
The band aren’t renowned for their onstage communication, and tonight is no different. Fortunately the songs do what’s needed, each one creating an intense connection with the crowd. ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ comes early and and hits hard. The chiming piano chords of ‘Fake Empire’ fill us, as always, with joy.
Meanwhile, old favourites ‘Available’ and ‘Cardinal Song’ – from the band’s long-disowned second album – are satisfyingly grinding and doomy, and put smiles on the fans’ faces.
Berninger’s boho-shabby-cultural-studies-lecturer charisma helps too, even though he doesn’t seem on top form tonight (illness or too much vin rouge backstage? I couldn’t possibly say). Crouched over his microphone, in crumpled bible-black, he is a tortured guide through The National’s emotional universe, from the tawdry, Tequila-soaked sitting rooms of ‘Pink Rabbits’ through claustrophobic neurosis in ‘Afraid of Everyone’ – watched over during that song by an unsettling, close-up projection of an unblinking eye – into the mass catharsis of ‘Mr November’.
Even with all this good stuff, I’m left feeling a teeny tiny sliver of agreement with those who feel the band need to switch things up a bit. Berninger’s wander into the audience for ‘Mr November’ is a well-worn gesture by now, and the unamplified ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, so surprising and moving the first time I saw it back in 2011, now seems pallid and overfamiliar.
A review of Trouble Will Find Me on its release awarded The National an A-grade for execution and D for ambition. After this evening, I’m tempted to say their live show is facing a similar problem. Is this a band in danger of resting on their laurels? I hope not.