The National @ Bristol O2 Academy, 24 Nov 2010

After the slow burning cult-to-the-cusp success of 2005’s Alligator and 2007’s Boxer, when it came to this year’s High Violet, the plaudits appeared to be overly-predetermined by The National’s prior growing reputation.  To these – almost certainly minority opinion – ears the album captured the quintet in a tacit state of unresolved artistic flux.  Seemingly unable to choose between favouring anthemic noire-rock and lugubriously lush balladry, High Violet strained overall to satisfy either strand fully.  There are however some strong songs buried inside its grainy production casings and boxed-in drum layers, as highlighting during a packed-out show at Bristol’s O2 Academy, even if some confused ambitions loomed in the background.

Opening with a smouldering “Runaway” from the new album, it initially seemed that the band’s dark romantic heart was going to dominate.  But from thereafter it became clear that the rock beast was more at play in The National’s on stage projections.  In small bursts, the visceral guitar duelling of the twin Dessner brothers and the interlocking rhythm section of the non-twin Devendorf brothers made for a genuinely gripping audio-visual spectacle, especially on full-throttle takes on “Anyone’s Ghost,” “Mistaken For Strangers” and “Abel.” However, sometimes the over-abundant aggression overwhelmed the black humour that singer Matt Berninger brings to The National special equations.

Consequently, more offbeat set-list inclusions (like the loveable Alligator extract “All The Wine”) and some of the band’s ruggedly beautiful ballads (“Lucky You,” “England” and “Slow Show”) glowed the most brightly.  Reassuringly of course too, there remain plenty of bulwarks to prevent the group’s new status leading to U2-style arrogant aloofness, mainly thanks to Berninger’s charismatic cliché-obfuscating presence.  After all, would a wannabe-Bono want to keep singing lines like “I was afraid I’d eat your brains,” joke so self-deprecatingly with his audience and deliver the occasional blood-curdling scream mid-chorus (inside “Squalor Victoria” and others), as Berninger did during the night’s proceedings?  Clearly, The National’s collective persona needs to carefully decide where it wants to be seen, heard and appreciated on stage with the next – and no doubt even bigger – long-player.  Given a choice between a depressing booze/mobile phone affiliated arena or an ornate vintage theatre venue, this relatively loyal fan knows where he’d prefer to catch The National in future… and not just for the more homely comforts.  Hopefully though, based on tonight’s mixture of muscle and innate irreverence the band will recognise the right path forward.