EL VY | Electric Ballroom, Camden | 10 December 2015
Gone are the black suit and bottle of red wine. In their place, a comfortable white shirt and slacks, cocktail in a plastic cup, and a clearly more relaxed Matt Berninger.
Free of the pressures of his increasingly high-profile day job, the singer from The National is out to have a good time. Although that’s all relative; whether he’s hunched, eyes closed, over the mic stand or pacing up and down, flicking the microphone cord behind him, his vocal performance is as intense as ever. It’s the between-song exchanges with EL VY co-conspirator Brent Knopf that are as fun, loose, and idiosyncratic as the songs from their debut album.
And it’s just those 12 songs from ‘Return To The Moon’ — plus one quirky cover — that are performed tonight. No ‘I Need My Girl’, ‘I Should Live In Salt’, or anything by Ramona Falls or Menomena. But the audience really don’t seem to mind, singing along word-for-word to music released less than two months ago, their up-close enthusiasm seemingly infecting the musicians on stage.
Berninger, Knopf and their two sidemen, add new dimensions — be it a lightness of touch, delicate tenderness, or playful aggression — to the recorded versions. The heartbreak ballad ‘Careless’, tucked away at the end of the album, sounds even more desperate and forlorn as it opens the show before a glistening take on ‘It’s A Game’ blurs the line between morose and optimistic. ‘Sleeping Light’, all organ and slinky guitar riffs, becomes the dreamscape suggested by its title, contrasted immediately by the muscular, swinging takes on back-to-back swamp rockers ‘Sad Case’ and ‘Happiness, Missouri’.
‘Silent Ivy Hotel’ sounds more haunted than ever, while the bouncy ‘Return to the Moon (Political Song for Didi Bloome to Sing, with Crescendo)’ gives Berninger’s falsetto and non sequiturs (“Bought a saltwater fish from a colourblind witch, ‘Cos she said she loved it”) extra room to breathe. A jangly ‘Paul Is Alive’ is equally breezy, ‘I’m The Man To Be’ grooves like a sleazy stripper anthem, and a energetically sincere take on the Fine Young Cannibals’ ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ has Berninger plunging into the crowd, before crediting the song “by Stephen Sondheim and Desmond Tutu” as the “greatest ever written”.
But, quite frankly, the gloriously maudlin ‘No Time To Crank The Sun’ is better. Stripped back to shuffling drums, rolling bass, and Knopf’s twinkling keys, it only amplifies the sense of longing and regret in Berninger’s croon. That’s gradually replaced by anguish, despair, and ultimately anger as the set closer ‘Need A Friend’ builds to a tumultuous climax.
“This is heartbreaking,” he rages, his voice cracking. But it’s also exhilarating, a triumphant conclusion to an emotional night; relaxing a bit certainly hasn’t dulled Berninger.