A few short hours ago, the most consistent band in indie rock ‘n’ roll, the National, who will soon perform at a 19,000-seat arena in downtown Brooklyn, played a surprise set at a bar that doubles as a flower shop. The occasion: the group released their sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, today, and they’re making the rounds of New York City, stopping at small venues as an early thank you to fans for having Trouble almost assuredly debut in the Billboard top-10. I was at the Ditmas Park-based Sycamore show, because I live in the area and don’t mind showing up at public settings with unwashed hair, an oversized shirt, and a demeanor that screams, “Sure, I drink wine at 12 p.m. on a Tuesday.” I wasn’t alone, and the response to the National was quietly rapturous.
Of the eight songs they played, seven were from Trouble, with the propulsive “Bloodbuzz Ohio” the lone standout. These were new songs, many of which have only been played live less than a handful of times, and already they sound like they’ve been a part of the National’s set for years. That aforementioned consistency works to their advantage here — the last four albums, from Alligator to Trouble, sound approximately similar to one another (brooding vocals; sad anger; complex, intelligent arrangements from the Dessner brothers), but on each, there’s something distinctive about them. Alligator, for instance, is looser and louder than Boxer, while High Violet is more lush than anything that came before. Trouble is melancholy and precise, yes, but it’s also relaxed, and it shows in their live set. Led by Bryan Devendorf’s repetitive bang-bang drumming, “Graceless” twists itself into a warm whirlpool of noise, while “Pink Rabbits” sounds like the end-of-the-bar lament the National have been waiting their entire career to record. The one-two of first single “Sea of Love” to “I Need My Girl” begins with a plea and ends with an emotional punch to your longing heart, a feeling the National excels at without ever being too obvious about it.
Matt & Co. seemed at home and comfortable during the 55-person capacity set, as they should (much of the band lives in the area; they’re local celebrities and can’t even go to the Mexican restaurant without receiving at least a few appreciative handshakes), but that’s the environment they breed no matter where they go. Anyone who’s mistaken complacently with being “too boring” (an unfortunate tag often associated with the National) clearly hasn’t seen them live; there’s a fueled-by-alcohol jolt of swaying energy, literally led by Matt compulsively moving both his mic stand and body back and forth, to their live performances that’s missing from the albums. Not that the records aren’t essential, but rather, they’re templates for which the National can work off of at their shows. For such personal songs, they’re made for public consumption, whether surrounded by bottles of whiskey at Sycamore or overpriced pretzel stands at Barclay’s Center. Also, babies like them.
That baby later got BLASTED on wine. The National will do that to you.