“You should all hate yourselves”, said National frontman Matt Beringer to the excitable Roundhouse crowd on Wednesday. “Else everybody else will.” This is what I generally associate with The National: self-loathing, break-ups, moodily looking out of train windows. Their live show bares no resemblance to this. The sheer energy of the band is extraordinary and mercurial – it prowls and pauses, coils and explodes, usually with Beringer beating himself up with his mic or leaping into the crowd. It was exciting.
The band is at the top of their game at moment – after many years of being beloved but not world dominating, their recent, much-lauded 6th studio album Trouble Will Find Me has lead to mainstream attention. This particular show sold-out in a matter of minutes, and the insistent crowd buzzed with anticipation.
They kicked off with I Should Live In Salt from the new record. Beringer’s emotive, weary baritone is mesmerising live, and this gorgeously expansive song was a perfect opener. Single Demons was a little less interesting – it’s far from the best track on the album, and the combination of the bizarre time-signature and subdued hook made for confused half-dancing from the crowd who couldn’t quite figure out the beat.
Album highlight This Is The Last Time didn’t disappoint – tightly performed but with real feeling. Beringer would beat his fists together like a pumped-up boxer when frustrated, and attack the mic when angry – the tensions that nudge the surface on the record push right through it live. Sultry, piano-led Pink Rabbits brought with it a smoky melancholy, a touch of the jazz-age, which complimented the band’s fairly distinguished look – Beringer himself was dressed like Fraser Krane at an office party. One of the band’s best-known songs, About Today (from 2004 EP Cherry Tree), was treated to a meandering, affecting arrangement which built to a burst of light and a wall of sound.
By the time the band got to Mr November, Beringer had climbed down into the crowd, and had made his way around the entire venue, keeping up impressively uninterrupted vocals throughout. The show ended with a stripped back, acoustic, sing-a-long version of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks – a highlight from their 2010 album High Violet – with every single member of the audience singing along word for word. This is a band that knows how to embrace an audience – they know the intimacy of their songs need to translate when giving them to a crowd of people, without losing any of the mystery.
A fair amount of the evening was given to tracks from the new record, which was fine by me – it’s some of their most accomplished work to date. The National, who have been together for 14 years, know how to present their music – the crowd doesn’t seem dissatisfied by abundance of new work being played. Hate themselves they might, but for the fans left enchanted on a Wednesday night, the feeling isn’t mutual.