A stately, cathartic strain of indie rock has made The National unlikely arena stars. – They are sometimes compared to Arcade Fire and Radiohead yet lack the former’s self-involved bluster and the latter’s cinematic angst. If they have a distinctive trait, it is a sort of epic ordinariness. Their songs are a blur of unravelling relationships, midlife blues and spiralling late-night thoughts.
These are very relatable experiences. The group’s great talent is to parlay the daily grind of growing older and occasionally not getting on with your significant other into cosmic pop. There’s certainly lots of that kitchen-sink melancholia as they begin their new tour at 3Arena, much of the gusto and gloom provided by frontman Matt Berninger.
A sort of sad, professorial scarecrow, Berninger has the persona of an ordinary guy trapped under the spotlights and unravelling faster than he expected. He croons frantically from behind his expensive-looking glasses on opener Once Upon A Poolside, a diaristic dirge from their new album First Two Pages of Frankenstein album.
Or maybe that should be a new-ish album. Frankenstein was released in April after a struggle with writer’s block on the part of Berninger. At the time, the band’s Bryce Dessner told The Irish Times the project signalled a new chapter for the musicians. What he didn’t tell The Irish Times was that The National were already working on a companion LP, Laugh Track, which was released earlier this week.
Surprise albums are typically the provenance of chart stars. Then Bryce and his twin Aaron Dessner, The National’s duo of guitarists, would know a few things about pop having worked with Taylor Swift on Folklore and Evermore. Aaron has also collaborated with Ed Sheeran – but nobody’s perfect. That glossy universe feels a long way off away, however, in a concert that is both celebration of where the National are today – the first three tracks are from Frankenstein – and a reckoning with where they’ve come from.
Berninger has a history of combative behaviour on stage – spilling wine and rowing with his bandmates. Here, however, he is calm and reassuring. He remains so even when the Dessners whip up a gory storm, as they do at the end of their quasi-hit Bloodbuzz Ohio.
They repeat the feat on frantic catalogue cut Abel. It’s a chugger they performed to a crowd of 300 or so at Whelan’s in November 2005. Throughout, Berninger deploys his signature move of plunging into the crowd for hugs and selfies. As he does, there is a sense of communion but of worship, too. He’s Taylor Swift for crestfallen middle-aged people.
Nobody goes to a National show expecting to dance their cares away. This is music for discreet sobbing and hugging your partner. Yet there’s an outbreak of cautious moshing on England, which skips atop a bulldozing horn section. Meanwhile, new track Space Invader showcases the Dessners’ facility for onslaughts of reverb that go off like collapsing buildings.
The evening ends with the houselights on, the Dessners reaching for acoustic guitars. At the lips of the stage, Berninger, having ditched his mic, croons the heartfelt Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks and the audience sings it back. It’s a shared moment between the crowd and a band whose unique selling point is that, despite the hits and the Taylor Swift collaborations, they really are just like us.