The National, ULU, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The National have been one of this year's secret cults. Only now, as their third album, Alligator, is being name-checked in most year-end critics' polls, has their importance in 2005 become clear.

Like the more readily acclaimed Arcade Fire, they are an enigmatic collective from the North American outlands - suburban Ohio, in The National's case, however, they now live in New York. It's hard, though, to place them in any current trend. They draw on disparate, forgotten corners of the Eighties, from the Echo & the Bunnymen of "Villiers Terrace" to U2 at the latter's most ethereal, and channel them through pulsing post-rock rhythms and skeletal East Coast indie sounds. The singer Matt Berninger's lyrics, which build a mythic bohemian cityscape from universal feelings of loss, suspicion and guilt, are The National's ace.

For their fourth and biggest London gig of the year, you can feel their breakthrough coming. One hard-core fan punches his fist to every note, and plenty more in this student crowd roar for favourites or spontaneously clap along.

Berninger's first act is to light a cigarette, sending noir curls of smoke into the neon stage-lights. Though he at first seems an awkward, gangly front man, he is soon clutching the mic-stand, then himself, and pounding his chest with a fist. For "Abel", he sinks down, and barks a raw shout at odds with a voice that is otherwise a calm bass croon. This scraped scream is a regular, rhetorical device, not a sign of real distress.

The National's intuitive swaying and swerving around him on stage does seem to approach real musical ascension. On "The Geese of Beverly Road", Padma Newsome's dervish violin whips them into a controlled, communal fever. After a similar effort a little later, Berninger wipes his face, straightens his back, and peers around him, as if unsure where he's been.

But it is The National's more meditative moments that set them apart. "Looking for Astronauts" finds Berninger raising the mic to the ceiling as if in prayer, searching for explorers it's too late to find. "Daughters of the Soho Riots" similarly imagines a lost, bohemian New York tribe, as a way to describe a deeper, indefinable sense of loss.

"Mr November" forces home their advantage, returning to their roaring rock side, Berninger teetering on a speaker's edge, gnawing his knuckles and sucking his thumb as guitars are slapped with whooping glee.

This extra gear, emerging from their strange mix of Daniel Lanois atmospherics, post-rock guitar layers, diffident cool and coded emotional exposure, keeps them unstable and fascinating. "City Middle" then recalls these Midwesterners' confrontation with New York. But, tonight, they seem grateful for London's acceptance. "If we're cool here, then we must be... OK," Berninger opines, as he drinks in the capital's cheers.