Inside the rarefied environs of London’s Royal Festival Hall, The National unveil new album I Am Easy To Find with a stunning performance that’s a celebration of womanhood.
After a screening of Mike Mills’ accompanying short film of the same name, a stark, affecting journey through a woman’s life starring Alicia Vikander, The National play 13 songs from their 68-minute eighth album due out next month, with three of the record’s vocalists – Kate Stables, Mina Tindle and Eve Owen – centre-stage.
Backed by a vast bank of red light, the band open with the skittering hard-panned electronic bursts of I Am Easy To Find‘s lead single You Had Your Soul With You. Surely the most inventive drummer in indie-rock today, Bryan Devendorf’s dancing snare and offbeat patterns are central to the record and his is a virtuoso performance from the get-go.
Gail Ann Dorsey’s arresting middle-eight vocal is taken tonight by Stables, aka This Is The Kit, and French vocalist Tindle, with a strings section carrying the song to its sweeping conclusion.
What follows is an assured, refined recreation of the record, itself a striking artistic statement, pretty much in sequence, Berninger often handing lead vocal to the trio of female singers.
The stunning, bittersweet Quiet Light builds from Aaron Dessner’s gentle piano chords and an electronic motif to a vertiginous strings outro that will remind keen observers of This Is The Last Time from 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. Berninger’s “I’m not that spiritual/ I still go out all the time to department stores,” is the first of the evening’s many brilliantly observed, wry lines co-written with wife Carin Besser to catch the ear.
After the reflective Roman Holiday, the stage turns a neon green for an immaculate rendition of Oblivions, almost unrecognisable as a National song. Bryce and Aaron Dessner expertly twist fingerpicked guitar and majestic piano chords into spectral downbeat dance music to quite stunning effect, Berninger duetting with Owen over mournful strings.
The Pull Of You is received just as readily by a quietly enraptured audience hearing the record for the first time, ushered in by an archetypal Devendorf snare rhythm, Berninger shifting restlessly through the lo-fi slapback spoken word section into an urgent screamed chorus of “Maybe we’ll talk it out inside a car with rain falling around us”. Angular distorted guitar fills the hall and a stirring call-and-response strings outro carries the song to its conclusion.
Hey Rosey (“I will love you like there’s razors in it”) and the sweetly dreamy I Am Easy To Find (“There’s a million little battles that I’m never gonna win anyway/ I’m still waiting for you every night with ticker tape”) bring the tempo back to more sedate levels. We’re not there long, though, as Owen leads the band through the clattering Where Is Her Head, one of the most upbeat, insistent songs The National have ever produced, backed by a howling eBow guitar line.
When the band crash into Berninger’s mid-section breakdown “I think I’m hittin’ a wall/ I hate loving you as much as I do” it’s a heady moment and any doubts about whether The National’s core support would take to an album that represents such a bold shift and at times sidelines their frontman, are swept away emphatically.
The sultry electro throb of So Far So Fast is another stunning moment, whipped up into a towering collision of analogue and electronic instruments at its denouement. By this point, Berninger embracing his new co-frontman role, has ventured into the crowd several times, and thrown his drink high into the auditorium, allowing it to crash down onto his own head.
The biggest reception is reserved for the introduction of Rylan, described by Mills tonight as The National’s “thank you to their audience”. Written years ago, yet until now never included on an album, the song has taken on a cult status among fans, and here it’s delivered with true relish, the Festival Hall crowd taking to its feet for the final section, the Dessners duelling away stage left and right over the gorgeous guitar outro.
They conclude with the sparse piano-led album closer Light Years, but it’s the first song of a universally demanded encore that steals the crowd’s hearts. Not In Kansas is a textbook slow, sad National composition of the highest calibre, edited down from an initial nine minutes by Mills.
An exquisite fingerpicked guitar pattern and piano part are the backdrop to one of Berninger’s finest lyrical performances as we find him returning to the Ohio home of his childhood, a disillusioned stranger: “Binging hard on Annette Bening and listening to REM again/ Begin the begin over and over”. A jarring choral mid-section from Stables, Tindle and Owen briefly borrows the the spotlight, but it’s Berninger’s moment.
We’re then treated to four ‘old’ favourites – a wanton tear through The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness, followed by Bloodbuzz Ohio, I Need My Girl and a triumphant closing Fake Empire, but tonight is a celebration of a striking a new album and a new beginning.
Rock music has so often been the playground of masculinity, frequently in all its ugly, misogynistic forms. It takes courage in these times when so many in the industry are still paying facile lip service to gender equality and when you’ve built an identity based around your male singer’s sorrowful baritone, to make your new album a platform on which to overtly celebrate femininity. Tonight, handing the microphone to a trio of female vocalists, The National are still The National, and they’re still the most thoughtful, progressive and potent indie-rock band on the planet.
I Am Easy To Find is released on 17 May 2019 on 4AD