“It’s a great night for crying… / to be blue,” laments Johnny Mathis over the PA as The National prepare to take to the stage.
The choice of entrance song has got to be interpreted as a cheeky reference to the Cincinnati five-piece’s image as serious purveyors of intelligent, sad alt-rock.
Referred to at times as the American Elbow, they’ve had a similar career trajectory that’s slowly built up a dedicated fanbase with sturdy, emotionally aware songs. Almost without anyone noticing this snowball effect, they’ve gone on to play arenas. Their music is certainly big enough to fill the space, with lacerating twin guitars imbuing their monochromatic indie with intensity and thoughtful lyrics.
Punctuated by additional trumpet and trombone, they bring some of REM’s big screen melodies to ‘Apartment Story’ while on ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ they tap into the blue-collar ethic of Springsteen (‘I still owe money to the money to the money I owe’). It’s a combination of art school and realism that they bring to the trio of video screens that flank the stage, which show random phrases, washes of ocean, and gritty live feeds of the band.
The scale of the live production contrasts with their ability to detail the minutiae of domestic life with quietly devastating understatement. ‘I say your name / I say I’m sorry,’ dissects Matt Berninger of a failing relationship, his rich baritone heavy with emotion on ‘Guilty Party’.
His voice, which frequently cracks with emotion during this epic 23 song set, is one of the band’s key assets. It was therefore brave to write a suite of songs designed for a female voice on eighth album I Am Easy To Find. To fulfil these parts the band is touring with This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables and Eve Owen, who are part of a wider entourage that takes the number of people on stage to nine.
There’s an inevitable lull with the length of the set – one too many mid-tempo piano-led songs in the final quarter – but Berninger largely keeps the atmosphere high with unexpected levity. Happy to debunk the band’s serious reputation, he rolls the mic over his costume to demonstrate that he’s clad all in corduroy (“a fire hazard,” warns one of his bandmates), and swaps shirts with a Radiohead fan in the front row.
Yet he’s also as earnest as you would expect, stopping ‘Oblivions’ to ask for medical attention for someone in the crowd, urging the audience to look after each other, and making an impassioned plea to not vote for ‘f***ing Boris Johnson’.
It’s ultimately this compassion and social engagement that elevates the band above their alt-rock peers, the connection with their audience demonstrated during the encore of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’. Played in pared down instrumental form, it has the entire audience singing the words. Its mournful, consolatory quality may not be an obvious anthem but the end result is strangely powerful and uplifting.