Squalor Victoria and Albert

The National are the American Elbow (or, for the Americans amongst you, Elbow are the English The National1). Purveyors of heartfelt, grandiose music, with a touch of prog in amongst the melancholy. And then there’s the history of both bands; both struggled for years before slowly, painstakingly building a loyal and suprisingly large fan base; both bands elevate themselves above the fray by releasing increasingly confident, ambitious albums whilst never turning away from what made them special in the first place.

The National’s core sound – guitars just on the edge of distortion, military drums, Matt Berninger’s charismatic baritone vocals – suits the Albert Hall, which normally struggles with rock bands. Although opener “Mistaken for Strangers” sounded a bit claggy, things soon righted themselves. With a healthy mix of mostly rapturously received new songs, and even more rapturously received older numbers, the band deftly worked their way through an enviably strong set.

This was one of those gigs where you could see the band playing their new material with an attitude of utter confidence. Mostly bands plying their great fabby shiny new release do so with a slight air of embarrassment; not this lot. “Afraid Of Everyone” was tumultuous, “Conversation 16” left everyone wondering if he really is singing “I was afraid, I’d eat your brains”2, and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, reeled out as an encore, was a touch rough around the edges, but judging from the audience reaction is fast becoming a fan favourite before the record has even been released.

Older songs – hailing from Alligator and Boxer – remind us just what a band we’re dealing with here. “Slow Show” was marvellous; a slow burning wonder. “Squalor Victoria” is all drums and thunder. “Mr November” sees Matt Berninger go for an extended walkabout through the crowd like a more lovable, and somewhat more drunken Bono. And “Apartment Story” was a delicate, touching paean to a generation that wouldn’t, or didn’t understand how to, protest against the Bush administration: “Stay inside ’til somebody finds us\Do whatever the TV tells us\Stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz”.

But the standout track tonight was “Blood Buzz Ohio”, one of their best songs, old or new. I’ve no idea what it’s about, but the lovely rhythm of the chorus – “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe\I never thought about love when I thought about home” – carries you along, no matter what the meaning of the song is. The backing from the two-man horn section is just perfect too. Stupid grin on face time.

This is one of the magical things about The National. When the songs make sense, they drill into your brain and refuse to leave thanks to their marvellous lyricism (“Another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults”) and the stunning musicality of the Dessner brothers, and in particular the astonishing drumming of Bryan Devendorf. He even got his own moment in the spotlight at the start of “Squalor Victoria”, where he looked like drumming like that is the easiest thing on earth. And even when they don’t quite make sense, the music pulls you along, capturing you until you’ve unlocked the secrets of what on earth he’s on about.

Like Elbow, The National aren’t so much a feel good band, as a feel good about feeling bad band. Last year, Elbow played their largest London show yet; this was The National’s largest show in London. It seems like the world might finally be waking up to what a special group this is, in the way that it did to Elbow in 2008; whether “High Violet” will be the breakthrough record it could so easily be, only time will tell. They’d certainly deserve it.

High Violet is out Monday

MP3: Afraid of Everyone by The National

(Track removed as apparently the Web Sheriff has been doing the rounds again. Bad Web Sheriff! Bad!)

1 Speaking of which, on my way to work this morning, feeling avuncular after doing my democratic duty, I saw a lady on the Tube listening to Elbow. I wanted to tap her on the shoulder and say “Listen to this”, before passing over my pre-release “High Violet”. She’d like it. Mind you, it’s not really the done thing, no matter what all those warm and fuzzy ads tell you.

2 He is, you know.

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