Gig Review – The National, Sydney Opera House Forecourt, 7 February 2014

Few bands are good enough to release an album as brilliant as 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me without it causing much of an uproar. While it was a well-reviewed record that built on The National’s already considerable fan base, it seemed to have a strangely low-key presence compared to many more hyped records of the year. Perhaps that’s because it surprised almost nobody with how accomplished it was. It’s almost boring how consistently good this band has become. Almost.

As tonight’s sold out audience attests, The National have now become a genuinely massive band. Though they have risen to prominence without compromising the essential darkness at the heart of their music one inch.

They start strong with the aching ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’, moving quickly onto other Trouble Will Find Me -cuts like ‘I Should Live in Salt’, a swelling song of lingering guilt, and ‘Demons’ which features a couple of startling confessional moments: “I am secretly in love with / Everyone that I grew up with”.

It’s not just the striking, impressionist lyrics and rich baritone of the self-described “Eeyore figure”, Matt Berninger, that makes them compelling of course. Twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner are among the classiest guitarists in contemporary music, capable of both of providing elegant, supremely tasteful backdrops (‘I Need My Girl’) or stealing a song with pedal to the floor intensity (‘Abel’).

As the sun sets over the harbour, there’s plenty of older favourites, like the lump-in-the-throat poignancy of ‘Slow Show’ which crumbles into a painful lament and High Violet standout ‘Sorrow’, one of their many songs which feel weighed down by a sense of creeping dread and inevitability.

The latter half of the set tends towards their more wistful side, with the flat-out beautiful ‘Pink Rabbits’ and a hushed, gentle ‘About Today’. Restraint is always a key word with The National, but restraint is pointless without some sense a band can really cut loose if they want to – and a manic version of ‘Graceless’ is a welcome reminder that they can do fierce as well as they can do pretty.

The encore features what may be a sneaky contender for their finest moment, ‘Mr. November’, and the freewheeling passion and cathartic energy of that song is only amplified by Matt Berninger wading through an adoring crowd.

He’s back among the fans for ‘Terrible Love’, a song which amplifies self-doubt into something huge and stirring and completely changes the energy of a mostly sedate evening. “If you see some glasses down there” Berninger says once he’s returned to the stage “well…they’re ruined”.

The final song is the now familiar but still spine-tingling unplugged version of High Violet finale ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’. What feels like the entire audience, not to mention a gathering crowd in the gardens upstairs, joins in for a haunting singalong.

One of the recurring clichés of rock history is that of the band that makes compelling music about their early struggles, then becomes fat and happy and out of touch with the unhappiness which originally fuelled their music. Despite the fame that has propelled them into extraordinary lives, rubbing shoulders with Barack Obama and all, The National still seem to have a mainline into a seemingly endless well of ordinary fears and doubts that made them so vital in the first place. It might be easy to take them for granted these days, but they remain a truly great band.

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