American band, The National, returned to the Sydney Opera House Forecourt last night (February 21) after playing there on their last visit to Australia in 2014. They’re here supporting their 2017 album, Sleep Well Beast, which won them a Grammy for Best Alternative Album in January.
Time will tell whether Sleep Well Beast resonates as well with a fickle public as their much loved albums from the mid-noughties, Alligator (2005), and Boxer (2007) which spawned the popular Fake Empire which featured in a Barack Obama 2008 campaign video.
Sleep Well Beast is something of a change for the band as synth melodies accompany angular electronic and organic beats. However, after listening to Sleep Well Beast, I wouldn’t revise my description of their sound as a contemporary, indie-rock cross between Leonard Cohen (especially via Matt Berninger’s vocal delivery) and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The comparison with Cohen and Cave very much includes the melancholia found in The Nationals’ musical stylings and lyrical themes.
The National are a band of brothers with vocalist Matt Berninger accompanied by Aaron Dessner (guitar, keyboards) and his brother Bryce Dessner (guitar, keyboards), joined by the brotherly rhythm section composed of Bryan Devendorf (bass) and Scott Devendorf (drums). The five piece’s live set up was boosted at the Opera House Forecourt last night by two additional musicians.
I started paying attention to The National late last year when I heard Slow Show in a café. It was good enough to make concentrating on my Twitter feed impossible. I think The National are better on record than live, despite last night’s performance being oh-so-note perfect. Mostly it felt very forced to me and Berninger has little charisma.
The tunes from Sleep Well Beast worked best with the third tune of the night, Guilty Party, working particularly well, as did Day I Die which was very moving. But only about a third of the set reached that level of gravitas.
Their best tunes had introductions from Berninger, including Bloodbuzz Ohio and the excellent I Need My Girl. He introduced the latter with: “Don’t get out of your couch, stay in your couch and sip your beer through your straw and listen to this song”. I also really enjoyed Fake Empire. These songs were outstanding, but for such an event amid the throng on a stunning evening on the Opera House forecourt, I wanted more.
Photo of The National on the Sydney Opera House forecourt by Daniel Boud