Edinburgh’s Usher Hall is a grand venue which traditionally plays host to operatic and orchestral performances. It’s oddly appropriate for the reverential atmosphere which greets The National – longstanding purveyors of introverted Americana. Following Australian duo Luluc’s support set of delicate harmonising, a pack of unassuming forty-somethings shuffle on-stage to (barely) acknowledge the sold-out three-tiered crowd. They launch straight into Nobody Else Will Be There, which ushers in an evening of collective musical therapy beneath the grainy backdrop of manipulated stage footage. Throughout, the group employ a rich emotional palette – from vague dread to full-on anxious breakdown.
I’m a few years late to this observation, but it really is striking to behold the resemblance between frontman Matt Berninger and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. The similarity extends beyond the superficial (stylish Teutonic hirsuteness and thick-rimmed glasses) to the thrum of nervous energy with which he paces the stage – as if stalking the Anfield touchline during a fraught league cup third round tie against Plymoth Argyle. A furious rendition of Mr November sees Berninger standing at the microphone performing antsy air guitar along to his vocals, roaming around inspecting the rhythm section while distractedly punching the air, doubled over screaming, hitting the microphone off his head with excitement and then tossing it away to crouch down next to the drums as if in prayer. His voice ranges from its default mode of slightly-tipsy-Leonard-Cohen-doing-an-Elvis-impression, to a clear tenor, to something raw and primal. He’s possibly the most awkwardly magnetic of the great frontmen, and his presence adds the extra dimension to their live performance.
If one were to draw out the pointlessly-specific Liverpool FC comparison (and what responsible reviewer wouldn’t), the drummer clearly slots into a Saido Mane role – providing an impatient flair without which the whole set would lack a cutting edge. The identical-twin guitarists/pianists are, more tenuously, Jordan Henderson clones – all understated intricacy. Their bashful smiles when more extended solos bring whoops from the crowd are endearing.
The bassist is James Milner. Someone has to be. Plus there’s an occasional brass section, which is nice.
At their best, as with the doleful grandeur of Bloodbuzz Ohio, the band comes together for a sort of Springsteen-on-downers uplifting melancholy. Even the spikier and less-anthemic numbers have an off-kilter pathos and imagination which tend to reward attention. There is enough sincerity on display to be affecting, but enough wry self-deprecation to (mostly) stop things from descending to the maudlin. The crowd is slow to warm – in part because the set starts with a run of less well-known songs from their latest album (Sleep Well Beast); but you also get the sense of a band that means a huge amount to a lot of people on a very individual basis – thousands of people suddenly listening to the same set of headphones. By the end of the night this has become a collective catharsis – a hoarse throng streaming out into the early autumn air, in as euphoric a state as a closing song entitled Terrible Love can reasonably be expected to conjure.