The National review: A little help from friends, a little majesty in Cork

The Brooklyn band open their European tour with a storming set at Sounds from a Safe Harbour

Artist: The National

Venue: Cork Opera House

Date Reviewed: September 16th, 2017

“Please stand by,” reads the flickering screen high above the stage. As the expectant audience swells, the band that have launched a thousand crises emerge, diving straight into the murky sea of their seventh, most recent record Sleep Well Beast.

Nobody Else Will Be There and The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness stride out purposefully, defiantly, a prologue to Walk it Back, which harnesses a heavy swagger towards their brilliant evolution, as Matt Berninger stalks around the stage, a man searching for answers, or at least other ways to endure.

In this first concert on their European tour, a gem in the crown of the brilliant Sounds from a Safe Harbour festival, Sleep Well Beast is presented as a shape-shifting thesis, all radiant dystopia, where crazed guitar attacks by the Dessners are matched by Berninger’s frantic narratives, and a searching expansiveness is met with more clarity.

They deftly fold in collaborators such as Bon Iver, Slow Moving Clouds, and Lisa Hannigan along the way, with Hannigan soaring on I Need My Girl, and Bon Iver particularly affecting on Slow Show, one of the few Boxer songs that are unfurled tonight. It is 10 years since that record was released, and there is a distinct fault line all the way from that to Sleep Well Beast. It’s there in the worn elegance, acute literary impulse, and musical muscularity that joins Fake Empire to Empire Line. It is unified on I’ll Still Destroy You, where stuttering drum patterns underline careworn piano chords, and Berninger’s crumpled, gorgeous voice.

The chaos of Sleep Well Beast reflects the chaos of a world increasingly more connected, but equally more fragmented, Black Mirror meets John Cheever, a writer Berninger reflects upon in Carin at the Liquor Store, often referred to as the “Chekhov of the suburbs”, “I was walking around like I was the one who found dead John Cheever/Hand in Glove”, pulling The Smiths into the fray, as Berninger wrestles the mantle of anxiety from Cheever’s cold hands.

We are reminded of The National’s most consistent preoccupation- the duality of human nature and its associated traumas, by older work such as Bloodbuzz Ohio, which plunges the stage into a wash of claret and a sense of emergency, and Afraid of Everyone, which gets everyone in the room singing together about despair and isolation. As ever, the brass section provides another narrative path tonight, amplifying mournfulness and ecstasy in equal measure.

Their two encores include Born to Beg, a rousing Day I Die, and one of the most powerful renderings of Terrible Love. But their last song does something more, speaking to their generous sense of collaboration and community. They cover Cat Power’s Maybe Not, reminding us why they create in the first place, not only to endure, but to “be free”; it’s a powerful moment in a night filled with majesty.