‘Smoke Detector’, the final song from The National’s new album Laugh Track, was written spontaneously at a soundcheck earlier this summer. On the back of April’s First Two Pages Of Frankenstein LP, the band felt a continued creative rush, and wrote the seven-minute epic album closer on the spot. Matt Berninger’s improvised, rambling vocals melted together with screeching guitar work from the Dessner twins on a song that’s as free and loose as the band have ever sounded.
The band take this new energy and commitment to evolution into their first of two gigs at London’s Alexandra Palace. Emerging with their pair of new albums from a well-documented period of writers’ block and a near-breakup has given the band a new lease of life, and they have never sounded more engaged or vital. Across a mammoth 28-song set, the band dip into rarely-seen corners of their expansive discography, dusting off 2004 track ‘Cherry Tree’ and remembering their first London gig at 93 Feet East, when they were discovered by Beggars Banquet. Elsewhere, they mark a decade of their beloved Trouble Will Find Me LP by playing its gorgeous, sweeping highlight ‘Pink Rabbits’ and debut the sweet title track from Laugh Track.
The National’s live shows have always been defined by the unique yet unsteady chemistry between Berninger and the Dessners, where everything feels like it could fall apart any moment. On this new tour, the fizzing back-and-forth between the band continues, but they lock into a new and simply unstoppable groove with bassist Scott Devendorf and his drumming brother Bryan. Many have scratched their heads at how a band without a bona fide radio or streaming hit have headlined festivals and played arenas worldwide, but when ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ reaches an ecstatic, horn-assisted conclusion or ‘Fake Empire’ induces a spine-tingling singalong, it’s clear that the band have the chops to fill rooms like these, and have deserved their place at the top table for a decade now.
Even more exciting is how they seem to be having more fun with the platform than ever, not playing within themselves but using it as an opportunity to evolve even further. Across the set, Bryce Dessner adds new wailing guitar solos into old favourites, adding arena rock panache into songs previously defined by their introversion and moody atmospheres, while Berninger’s voice sounds better and more alive than it has in decades.
During the set, the band promised that their second Ally Pally show will feature an entirely different setlist, an undeniable sign of a band who have never been more comfortable with themselves, or willing to push the boundaries of their live show. This enjoyment radiates back onto the crowd at a show that’s simply euphoric, and sees the band reaching a new peak.