The National review – dependable dose of broody euphoria and empathy

All Points East festival, Victoria Park, London
The US rock band tease two new songs in an expertly paced set that serves casual and hardcore fans alike

Are the National the most important American alternative group of their generation? Perhaps, though it would be as much from their members’ activities outside the parent band as because of their own music. Bryce and Aaron Dessner, the twin brothers who play guitar and write the music, have become central collaborators and curators to a whole swathe of American music, running festivals and writing and producing with everyone from Kronos Quartet to Taylor Swift. Evidently, their creative needs cannot be contained within a rock band.

It’s not hard to hear why they are so sought after. For all that at one level, the National are an absolutely conventional alt-rock band – a bit broody, a bit euphoric, a bit anxious, a bit triumphant, a bit quiet, a bit loud – there’s something gauzy and unpindownable about them. It is not meant as a slight to say they are Coldplay for those who fancy themselves cool – they, too, communicate emotion as much through sound as words, building moods and offering moments of release when lowering verses erupt into soaring choruses.

Matt Berninger.
Mild contortions … Matt Berninger. Photograph: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

Their 90 minutes in an east London park are expertly paced – they do play new songs but not ones to send punters to the bar. Tropic Morning News (Haversham) has the directness of U2, all buzzing guitars and insistent pace and the kind of lyric that allows everyone to feel seen – “I was suffering more than I let on … What happened to the wavelength we were on?” Then the new, surprise single, Weird Goodbyes – with Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold taking the place of guest vocalist Justin Vernon – which is already greeted like an old friend.

But the casual fans are given their treats, rather than forced to munch through greens before getting dessert. A thrilling Bloodbuzz Ohio comes early in the set, offering the first singalong, albeit an unlikely lyric for mass communion: “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees.” They indulge the sentimental with I Need My Girl and Pink Rabbits – the latter dedicated by singer Matt Berninger to his parents on their 55th wedding anniversary – love songs more lyrically direct than most of their oeuvre.

That said, 24 years into their career, there is sometimes a risk of the National flying on autopilot. It’s not surprising that Berninger no longer has the unpredictable anxiety he brought to the stage earlier in their career, but these days his mild contortions have the air of someone doing improv as an eccentric college professor giving a particularly thorny lecture on James Joyce.

And you could, if you wished, construct a National song by numbers: have Bryan Devendorf roll around his toms for a bit, while his brother Scott gets all stormy on bass; have Berninger offer some non-specific lyrics that signify profundity without actually meaning very much, then have the Dessners bring it all together for a rousing refrain. There is, really, quite a lot of that.

Still, they are so expert at what they do, and make such a clear and direct connection with those who love them, that it is impossible not to get carried away on waves of pleasure. They deserve to be an important group.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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