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LIVE REPORT: The National
Paul Smith , July 2nd, 2013 07:23

Paul Smith finds the National by turns sublime and squalid at their recent Roundhouse show. Photographs courtesy of Valerio Berdini

The stage is empty, but the National are on show. Giant screens project a live stream of the band pacing through a narrow Roundhouse corridor, waiting about, swigging cocktails. The shaky handycam follows them on stage, swapping an empty passageway for a packed-out hall. Tonight is about scaling down a band on a perpetual ascent. For the National, expansion means more intimacy.

“We drove by the Barfly earlier, where we played this song many years ago,” announces guitarist Aaron Dessner. “I have no memory of that,” mutters singer Matt Berninger. The song is ‘Secret Meeting’ from 2005’s Alligator and the first of tonight’s unlikely shirt-swinging, sweat-wringing anthems. It’s hard to resist their wordiest of choruses: “It went the dull and wicked ordinary way.” “Gobbledegook,” Berninger calls it.

‘Sea Of Love’ from this year’s Trouble Will Find Me is even more immersive. It’s a shanty that conjures a seascape of crashing guitars and overlapping harmonies, topped off with Aaron Dessner’s harmonica toots. These are songs to clutch close to the chest; they invite you to reconsider the mundane through a sentimental filter.

If 2007’s Boxer was melancholic mastery and 2010’s High Violet tetchy and charged, Trouble Will Find Me’s edges are sandpapered. By now, the Dessner twins’ status as a Brooklyn dynasty is indisputable. Their 2009 Dark Was The Night compilation was a who’s-who of US indie and they run the Brassland label and host an annual festival (Crossing Brooklyn Ferry). Now the National are subject of a new documentary, Mistaken for Strangers, where Matt Berninger’s younger brother Tom lays his claim to world’s worst roadie.

The first release from Trouble..., ‘Demons’, ponders social unease over a 7/4 time signature. Berninger’s baritone is low to the point of inaudibility, gradually rising with the cry, “When I walk into room, I don’t light it up... Fuck!”

There are a few lyrical clangers on the album: ‘Humiliation’ carries the inexcusable couplet, “I was teething on roses, I was in guns and noses.” But the subtle brass arrangements are beguiling enough to mask any unevenness. 
‘Squalor Victoria’, the most cumbersome song from the otherwise elegant Boxer pulsates and throbs with a revised vigour. Berninger meanders about the stage - he could be sleepwalking – staggering between the Dessner twin’s symmetrical serenade. It’s pretty squalid stuff.

Berninger is the kind of performer who’ll lose his mind and thwack the microphone on the floor, only to pick it up and apologise. His knowing humour softens the songs’ anxiety. He flags up the “self-loathing” of ‘I Need My Girl’. “You should hate yourself,” he says, shrugging, “otherwise everyone else will.”

A generous five-song encore finds Berninger spooled out across the hall for ‘Mr November’, eventually fished back to the stage by security. On ‘Terrible Love’ he attempts a front crawl among the first rows. What looks like a final bow becomes an acapella of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’: a campfire singsong without the flames, leaving the lines, “All the very best of us, string ourselves up for love,” to reverberate on the nightbus home.