The National craft nuanced, studied, multi-textured rock anthems, and take their time to do so — High Violetis their first release in three years. Not coincidentally, their outputrequires patience to fully appreciate, and the crowd at Thursdaynight’s stealthily announced, intimate gig at Brooklyn’s Bell House displayed a hushed, reverent decorum, a vibe imbued with an understanding that their full attention was required.
As the quintet — which germinated in Cincinnati, Ohio, but whose members now reside in Brooklyn — performed each new song, joined by a half-dozen extra musicians on horns, percussion, and keyboards, the response was the same: a burst of applause and cheers, followed by a near-silent hush.
“We’re gonna play a couple of new songs, flawlessly,” singer Matt Berninger quipped, after getting underway with High Violet cuts “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Sorrow.” He was joking then, and there certainly may have been some opening night fumbles, but early on it became clear that this new material was very much worth waiting for.
The third new song in the set list, “Anyone’s Ghost,” was quickly accessible, a slow but empowered nocturnal-sounding shuffle.
Next came “Little Faith,” and its gray-sounding refrain (“I’m stuck in New York and the rain’s coming down”), and “Afraid of Everyone,” with haunting background coos, and even more dour lyrics from Berninger about not having “the drugs to sort this out,” and about a voice swallowing his soul. It wasn’t hard to project future encounters with these songs on headphones, played while strolling alone through the urban landscape — a typical aesthetic for this band.
The crowd remained spellbound, including R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, who soaked in the new songs intently from the back. And while the room expectedly surged to life when the band revisited older romps like “Secret Meeting” and “Mr. November” from 2005’s Alligator — the latter song coaxing a very “Pop Song ’89” set of dance moves out of Mr. Stipe — it was the night’s final number that showed how High Violet might already be creeping hauntingly into synapses.
Since they’d played it on national TV the night before, “Terrible Love” was the most familiar new tune, and even with just 24 hours to breathe, it’s already starting to cast a spell. Surging to a cacophonous crescendo that far exceeds the album version — and was on par with the band’s perpetually explosive performance of Alligator‘s “Abel” — “Terrible Love,” however powerful it was, might not have been ringing note for note in heads as the show came to its conclusion.
But it’s safe to expect that it’ll be doing so quite soon.
The National’s set list:
Start a War
Afraid of Everyone
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks