As Leonard Cohen once crooned, "Baby, I've been here before, I know this room and I've walked this floor..." It's a familiar world, the one The National inhabit. With their tense arrangements and lugubrious vocals, the Cincinatti-via-Brooklyn five-piece, numbering two sets of brothers plus a singer, essay a kind of darkly wry romanticism redolent of Tindersticks, Arab Strap, Interpol, Mark Eitzel and The Walkmen, as well as that grand old grumpus, Cohen..
It's not easy to mine this kind of music-for-mood-movies vibe without sounding mannered. It's to their considerable credit, then, that The National have it down to an art, as suggested by the four- and five-star reviews of their third album, Alligator. The record sounds simultaneously soulful and self-mocking, dynamic and doleful, wired and wasted, and busy even on the slowest songs .
That sense of tension proves fiercely compelling live. The band's unshaven singer, Matt Berninger, makes a perfect entrance, smoking nervously, looking wobbly on his feet, and crooning about bottles in his fist and roses in his teeth on the rueful "All the Wine". Having set a steady pace, the band give it a quick jolt with "Murder Me Rachael", on which an urgent, bass and violin backdrop drives a Nick-Cave-ish vocal.
The band and their unofficial sixth member, the violinist Padma Newsome, sound tipsy and tight all at once. On "Lit Up", a Bunnymen-ish opening strum gives way to a gloriously open-topped chorus. The play-off between Berninger's just-out-of-bed voice and the rest of the band's precision backdrop is perfectly sculpted.
They flit from beautiful to bruising with ease. Newsome's vivid violin strokes shudder and shade, while the guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner shift from clear, chiming notes to brash chords in a heartbeat, and Berninger's knowing lyrics are full of sudden mood-shifts.
There's nothing remotely sleepy, though, about the single, "Abel", which sees Berninger finding a decent use for the pillar positioned right in front of the stage, leaning on it over the heads of the audience. He needs a bigger stage, clearly.