The National / Annuals @ Astoria, London, 22.05.2007

Manfully bridging the divide between the uncomfortably withdrawn and absorbingly eccentric, James Berry recoils at the loaded springs of Annuals frontman Adam Baker and the momentous slow-burn of Arcade frontman, Mat Beringer.

Love Broken Social Scene but haven’t got the concentration to keep up with the every movement of such a twitchy many-limbed creature? Perhaps we could interest sir in a more manageable animal? Annuals, numbering six, are certainly a more tax-return-friendly size, but their productivity trails sparks and they serve as proof positive that you can always get everything you need in the boot if you spent your childhood playing Tetris and are willing to sit on the lid until the catch locks. Frontman Adam Baker is a loaded spring, rebounding from his microphone, keyboard and second drum kit positions, wrestling his boundless kinetic energy under control. He is like we imagine Fyfe Dangerfield from Guillemots might be were he not so antique and chair-bound. The music is Flaming Lips fresh, each member equally unflinching and exuberant in their contributions to each song’s framing. Like a jack-in-a-box (or out of a boot) they bring and already vibrant, overflowing album to life.

The welcome that awaits The National’s arrival expects no such thing – their sedate evolution is one of their important keystones – but it upholds the blistering enthusiasm in itself. Some things never change, or at least they do slowly, but something is very different this time around. You can’t ignore the anticipation of the 2000-plus strong sold-out crowd (and surprisingly at some points, choir) assembled here a mere day after the release of their latest album, ‘Boxer’. Their records are notoriously slow burning and even factoring in file sharing this is undoubtedly the ‘Alligator’ effect still catching up with them – they have a lot to thank that record for. So 2000 people, adoring, warm, arms extended. And frankly, frontman Mat Beringer does not know what on earth to do with them.

The chasm between uncomfortably withdrawn and absorbingly eccentric is this man’s style, but even by previous standards, standing limp, nervous, he looks like he’s knocking back chloroform shots to quall the terrors. There is an antidote though, and that is his art – he lives at the heart of his songs, wrapped tight in the protective reams of his abstract and contemplative imagination – and this is no more evident than tonight. This being the first headline show on the ‘Boxer’ run he still tip-toes through new songs, losing himself for a minute, then becoming self-aware, checking he has his footing. But more familiar, and now intuitive, songs – ‘Secret Meeting’, ‘Murder Me Rachel’ – are the exorcism of his inhibitions that prove the rule. Super-charged set climax ‘Mr November’ ramps up the temperature of his blood and he teeters at the lip of the stage, microphone pulled up above his head, screaming at the sky, over and over, louder and more intensely with each call. Until the song’s climax falls off the edge and suddenly there is silence, then wild applause, and he is left, flailing slightly, caught in the headlights, arms hung unevenly, carrying the air of a man who’s just regained consciousness in Trafalgar Square wearing nothing but a squewiff smile and dizzy confusion.

The sound in the Astoria does them no favours. They’re a band for whom the subtleties reign over the bold shapes and though their dynamic has to change – a live performance is not available for digesting at great length, nails must be struck precisely – tonight the sound hangs heavy and there is little breathing room. Of the new songs, ‘Slow Show’ breaks through to blossom warmly, ‘Squalor Victoria’ batters its way towards an intoxicatingly blunt finale, ‘Racing Like A Pro’ glides beautifully with Matt spinning out the repeated refrain “you’re dumbstruck baby” like he’s just grown wings and a whispered ‘Gospel’, utilising the broken and ever so quite grand piano on stage, is so bruised and delicate you want to pick it up in your hands and offer it some protection. Beneath the handicap they play majestically, intricately, perfectly – more so than we’ve seen them do before, in fact – and that still leaves an impression of grandeur. Some things never change, but some things just get better. Here’s looking forward to their November tour

Set List

Start a War
Play Video
Secret Meeting
Mistaken for Strangers
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria
Baby, We’ll Be Fine
Apartment Story
All the Wine
Murder Me Rachael
Racing Like a Pro
Daughters of the Soho Riots
Mr. November
Fake Empire

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