Where do you go when you’re The National? A band who have slowly, and almost without anyone really noticing, become one of the biggest bands on the planet. We went to see them perform at the Southbank Centre on 18th April 2019.
It sometimes feels like The National’s success happened by accident – these five men going from “playing to three men in a bar watching Jeopardy” to this – being able to play a new album no one has heard yet to a rapt audience at London’s Southbank Centre.
In a similar way their music has shifted and changed in ways that seems almost imperceptible – a sophisticated tweak here and an electronic pulse added there. But for a band that always hold themselves up to the highest self-criticism was that enough? After the Grammy winning Sleep Well Beast you thought they might disappear for a while. But here they are, just over a year and a half after that was released, on the Royal Festival Hall stage – a venue they played 10 years earlier as Boxer catapulted them to stardom – performing a brand new album, I Am Easy To Find.
Enter Mike Mills, best known for 20th Century Women. A longtime fan, he emailed Matt Berninger and asked to direct a music video but the band had something more ambitious in mind. They sent him a load of ideas and sketches for songs and invited him to make a short film and so Mills became a producer of sorts. It became collaborative, the film feeding the music as the music fed the film.
The film is screened here tonight ahead of the show. It works on some levels but not others: telling the story of the whole life of a woman, played at every stage by Alicia Vikander (she never ages but the characters around her to do), it’s part emotive snapshot of an entire life, part extended perfume advert. The lack of dialogue and captions that flash up – ‘Her mother’s laugh’, ‘Her first friend’, ‘Suddenly aware of all the energy around her’ – made it feel clunky though the fragments and arrangements of songs from the new album that soundtrack it feel naturally and effortlessly weaved in.
During the Q&A, Berninger explains that the album came from an idea of “the fabric of other voices” and the “collage of people that make a human who they are” and I’m Easy to Find is an album full of female voices. The record features guest vocals from Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, Mina Tindle and David Bowie’s bassist Gail Ann Dorsey. Tonight singers, Kate Stables and Pauline de Lassus, share the stage for the entire night with Berninger to bring these songs to life, joined also for other songs by Eve Owen.
These collaborations and a new way of thinking seems to have freed the band. The Dessner’s intricate arrangements feel expansive and fresh. They start with lead single ‘You Had Your Soul With You’ and ‘Where Is Her Head’, a glorious, frantic blossoming anthem that sees Owen lead the vocal and sounds like Broken Social Scene. Elsewhere, the female voices and electronic touches sometimes makes it sound like the Postal Service – like on ‘So Far, So Fast’ and ‘The Pull of You’.
‘Hey Rosey’, which Berninger says was written completely by his wife, Carin, is spellbinding too. But the biggest cheer is saved for ‘Rylan’, a live favourite for years that has finally found a home on this album.
Berninger remains the centre of the it all, even when he tries to withdraw to the shadows. As the other vocalists take over, he is still the swirling hurricane at the centre of the quiet around him and he is in great wisecracking mode. “What do you want people to take away from the film?” Edith Bowman asks during the Q&A after the film. “T-shirts,” Berninger replies. During the show he teases Eve Owen about pictures of her “weird” turtle she’s been sending. And for the encore, when the band are stripped back to their essentials, he comes to life. It starts with another new song, ‘Not In Kansas’, with its plucked guitar and stream of consciousness about early Strokes albums and listening to REM.
They rattle through ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ and ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’, Berninger stealing a fan’s phone to video himself while also throwing his wine 10 feet into the air and letting it land on the stage as a stage hand tries to wipe it down to prevent a health and safety nightmare. It finishes with a euphoric feeling ‘Fake Empire’, a feeling washing over the room that the quiet devotion that the band has long inspired has grown in into something more. Where do the National go from here? They’ll find a way.