Pic courtesy of Daniel Boud
Sydney Opera House forecourt, February 21
Dualities abound in The National. It is core business for them. It is core appeal for us.
At an obvious level, this is an indoors band – a group focused on the rise and fall, the charge and retreat, of emotional engagements observed painfully closely; a band not gazing at their shoes, not hiding their responses, but nonetheless not made for playing to the bleachers – actively playing outdoors.
(There’s more to say on that playing outdoors thing in a bit. I have issues.)
In this outdoor set-up, the two large screens on either side of the stage offer clear, singular, colour footage of band members - providing the straightforward, the personal if you like – while the narrower screen behind them on stage offered a mix of abstract, oblique, real-but-distorted, reverse, and black-and-white images – providing the art, the interpersonal maybe.
On a night where you could never say the band were even close to falling apart, but you’d also not really claim they were wholly or continuously in sync, there were still many fascinating moments such as Walk It Back where the guitars of the Dessner brothers engaged in a back-and-forth, as if picking up a conversation started a while ago and likely to continue another day, while the Devendorf brothers’ rhythm section engaged in a separate, almost internal conversation that nonetheless regularly intersected with those guitars.
That guitars v rhythm section element of course is possibly the defining element of The National’s sound, their sonic duality which is the flipside to climaxes such as you find in Born To Beg, where contrasting riffs clawed at each other’s throats in a way a regular band might have aspirations to pulling off.
Those times when the Dessners hang sheets of sound, almost static but washing over you, while the bass and drums are in constant movement – drummer Bryan Devendorf’s always inventive fills and shifts at the centre of everything – fling pulse against stasis, an unsettled spirit against a wall of certainty.
These are the physical manifestations of Matt Berninger’s lyrics, where love brings self-questioning and contentment breeds contempt, as in Carin At The Liquor Store’s “I was a worm, I was a creature/I’d get on the ground the second I'd see you/You cannot command your love”, but where there’s no gainsaying what it really means to be entwined and halved/doubled, as in Slow Show’s “I wanna hurry home to you/Put on a slow, dumb show for you and crack you up/So you can put a blue ribbon on my brain/God, I'm very, very frightened, I'll overdo it”.
That some of those lyrics of falling apart - the centre having folded, the edges long past frayed - are written by the solidly together couple of Berninger and his wife, the writer/editor Carin Besser, is yet another layer of duality to savour.
So many things to savour in a National show: in the thought behind every aspect; in the depth of each thought; in the energy even in the shallows; in the way the added brass/percussion/keyboard duo up the back brought extra flavours to songs such as Rylan.
And then little rewards for the long-termers, like one fan who emailed me to celebrate the inclusion of relatively rare songs Wasp Nest (so delicate and graceful, like the cocktail dress described within) and About Today.
Yet complete satisfaction was not to be had on this night.
Part of it was that nagging sense that the band was not quite as one, which left a patch in the centre of the set a little too drifting, and part of it was Berninger seemingly crossing that line between his favoured wine-altered state and being just drunk enough to lose connection with us.
Inescapably though, a big part of it though was the fact that this was an indoors band playing outdoors.
While The National isn’t a band which needs to rattle your cerebellum or shake your bowels to be effective, volume and a physical impact is required to create that sense of being enveloped in the sound, of being one with them and everyone around you, of being transported by the escalation and flight of Bloodbuzz Ohio, pulled by the drive of The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness, and held tightly by the intensity of Fake Empire.
You just don’t get that out here with the noise restriction, the floating away on the wind sound, the spread out and unfocused audience.
This isn’t new, and it won’t be the last time it’s said: the prestige and the prettiness of playing on this spot, the pleasantness of watching music on a warm night or under a clear sky, not to mention the larger ticket sales than offered in the concert hall, mean we’ll be coming here again and again.
However, for a show like this to even come close to being something special it needs everything to be not just right but near perfect. The National have near perfection in them – I know, I’ve seen it – but this wasn’t one of those nights.
The National play at the Sydney Opera House forecourt tonight, February 22; Riverstage, Brisbane, February 27; Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, March 1.