Set high on a hill in North London, the grounds surrounding Alexandra Palace offer stunning views of London. On a still, clear night, I make my way up to “the People’s Palace” to see the National and I survey the cold lights of the city stretched out before me. From this perspective, the city in which I have made my home this year seems smaller, but just as flinty; beatable but ultimately unforgiving. Settling in to London has been tougher than I expected, and throughout the adjustment process of job-hunting, meeting new friends, dealing with homesickness, taking long walks to fill my time, the National, a Brooklyn-based band, has been my soundtrack. Maybe they are from the wrong country, but the National have a melancholic sensibility which suits the UK. And now the National has brought me to this spot, has literally brought me to the other side. I could look down on London, feeling that things in my life are falling into place. A jolt and I feel that if I take my eyes off it for a second, it could all twist away from me. Or maybe that was just a chill from the November weather.
Through the great Palm Court and into the venue, the National kick off their second London show with a cracking version of “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, one of my favourite tracks from this year’s fantastic album, Trouble Will Find Me. “I Should Live in Salt” and then “Bloodbuzz Ohio” kept the energy high, and was supported by appropriately sanguine visualisations on the screen. Lead singer Matt Berninger was spot on with his baritone vocals, clear-rimmed pedo-chic spectacles and tall man pacing, and the twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner on guitar were dapper and blistering all night.
The evening was littered with dedications: the band seeming humble and appreciative in a way a band can be when it has struggled and only tasted success later. The most moving of these was Berninger’s dedication of “I Need My Girl” to his wife, who was celebrating her birthday without him back in the US.
The pace remained fast, the band got through a vast amount of material, including one new song. Several tracks appeared from Alligator, providing rocky fun but so much more shouty than more recent offerings. By contrast, “Slipped” was a moment of slow burn contemplation, while “Sorrow” had me with tears streaming down my face, for so much that has passed this year, so much that I have let go. Generally, songs from 2010’s High Violet seemed to get a bigger reception. Berninger took a few trips through the sold-out crowd, including during a passionate version of “Terrible Love”, and duly thanked the security guards for protecting his testicles during these sojourns.
Towards the end of the set, the National pulled out the anthemic, “England”. “You must be happy in England, you must be loving your life in the rain”, Berninger sang, supported by rainy projections. The proud Londoners around me embraced this homage to their damp weather. “Fake Empire” then a short break and the band was back with a belter of an encore. Five more songs, ending with an unplugged singsong for “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”. What does it say about us if a rallying cry for an audience is, “I’ll explain everything to the kids…” ? Somehow it was uplifting. Really.
The National bore up under the weight of my expectations, my devotion of several months. It’s a live show that I was privileged to see. And I have kept up my end of the bargain too.