sun 26/05/2024

The National, O2 Arena | reviews, news & interviews

The National, O2 Arena

The National, O2 Arena

Newer songs have their subtleties quashed by the demands of rock's big tent

Until recently, The National were a band for the knowing connoisseur, best known for their wry wit and tasteful guitar sheen. They seemed too niche for the O2 Arena, where they played their biggest ever UK headline last night. But that big tent of consumerism has now claimed them, and before an appreciative but rather lukewarm audience, somehow they seemed a little more ordinary and mainstream.

It felt like a night of two halves, in which – rather like one of the band’s songs, famous for their late crescendos – the second half picked up significantly, culminating in a funky, brass-driven stream of heartfelt ballads. They started well, with a rapt reception for “Don't Swallow the Cap” and “I Should Live in Salt”, the latter one of their more singable tunes, but by “Sea of Love”, the fifth song, Matt Berninger’s stooped, mumbling, mic-caressing delivery, which in a more intimate space, or on CD, is a subtle, multi-layered instrument, was sounding as grey and numbing as the fog rolling off the Thames.

The venue didn’t serve the band’s style well at all. Though the audience around me all knew the lyrics, and sang along – albeit very sedately – despite Berninger’s rumble, the sheer size of the arena flattened the musical detail and rendered the lyrics – one of the band’s most distinctive features – almost inaudible. Gradually, the songs came to seem slightly formulaic: Berninger’s opening vocal solo, followed by a chorus from the Dessner and Devendorf brothers, some instrumentals, then a rousing climax.

They're only different from a standard stadium-filler in that they’re for people who want to sing along quietly

The band arrested the slide with the angry energy of “Abel” (dedicated, so Berninger said, to his brother, in what one hopes was a sign his sense of irony was alive and well after all). The brassy warmth and lyrical melody of “Pink Rabbits” and “England” worked much better in this space, while the offbeat rhythm and direct emotional impact of “About Today” also provoked a warmer response. There was a final climax when the band returned to the stage for an encore, with Berninger joining the audience for “Terrible Love” and stagediving for “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”. The atmosphere was finally approaching an appropriate stadium warmth, though for much of the gig, Berninger was the only one throwing drinks around. Ironically, it was the earlier repertoire, written for smaller venues, with its instrumental and rhythmical colour, that worked best at the O2; with the exception of “Pink Rabbits”, the songs from last year’s Trouble Will Find Me proved to be too subtle, dramatised in shades of grey.  

Slate’s rock critic Carl Wilson, in a piece entitled “Why I Hate The National”, suggested last year that “The National makes me feel that rock music, like much of American literature and visual art before it, has died and gone to graduate school”. Despite the late rally, this gig in fact appeared to demonstrate the opposite: not that this is an over-sophisticated art-concept of a band, but that beneath the subtle layers that were quashed by this arena’s size, they’re a less original, more predictable band than many have believed, only different from a standard stadium-filler in that they’re for people who want to sing along quietly.

By “Sea of Love”, Matt Berninger’s stooped, mumbling, mic-caressing delivery was sounding as grey and numbing as the fog rolling off the Thames


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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