Here’s what went down when The National did a fancy film/gig/talk event at London’s Royal Festival Hall

The Golden Age of The National may only now be approaching

To celebrate the upcoming launch of The National’s project ‘I Am Easy To Find’, which comprises their eighth album and an accompanying film made by 20th Century Women director Mike Mills, the band announced a series of ‘A Special Evening With…’ events across the globe – featuring a screening of the movie, a Q&A with its creators and the band, and a unique performance. We went along to London’s Royal Festival Hall to find out what we can expect from the next chapter of The National.

The movie is a real tear-jerker

Alicia Vikander has the starring role in this 25 minute arthouse movie, telling the journey of a woman from birth to death. While physically she doesn’t age on screen, Vikander uses very simple but effective body language and an economy of speech to gracefully guide you from infancy through to adolescence on to young married life, motherhood, the menopause and old age – with every high, low and question mark along the way. The National’s music has always very vividly travelled the gamut of human experience, but here when partnered with such powerful performances and visuals it delivers an emotional gut-punch like never before. Brace yourself.

The National, live at London’s Royal Festival Hall

Don’t call it ‘a soundtrack’

This is not just some songs leant to a movie or a film written loosely around a few lyrics. The two are indelibly linked. After both parties agreed to work together and a narrative was carved out, Mills acted almost like a producer as well as director – urging the band to rework tracks as well as even remixing them himself to suit the movie. Frontman Matt Berninger and lyrical collaborator and wife Carin Besser also found themselves constantly challenging themselves and reworking the words, editing them as if planning out the final scenes of the film. Even songs on the album that didn’t make the movie are made up of lines and snippets from the film and scenes inspired by the woman’s journey. With the record and the movie, one simply can’t exist without the other.

This is an album about everyone, not just Matt Berninger

“I’ve been writing more from the perspective of other people,” Berninger teased in conversation with NME last summer, revealing that he was “looking at things from a different side and turn the binoculars backwards” rather than usual sad lyrics about “sex, death and losing” or “a personal confession or an observation of self”. He’s succeeded. During the Q&A this evening, Berninger tells of how he and Besser looked to their young daughter for inspiration, imagining all of the characters that could come to play a role in her life. This is about mothers, fathers, children, friends, lovers, and the departed. It’s about everyone.

The National, live at London’s Royal Festival Hall

This project is a celebration of community and femininity

“I’ve always been more comfortable writing about female characters,” Mills tells the crowd of his life’s work, after growing up in a home of “strong, powerful women”. And there were plenty involved in ‘I Am Easy To Find’. As well as Besser and Vikander, the record features guest vocals from Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten, Mina Tindle, David Bowie’s bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, to give voice to the various stages of a woman’s life. Those delivering stellar performances tonight are not so much as sharing the stage, but completely dominating it.

The National’s Bryce Dessner, live at London’s Royal Festival Hall

Fans really, really love ‘Rylan’

Seriously. Two of the questions from fans during the Q&A about this once-thought-lost rarity. The track dates back to the writing sessions of 2010’s ‘High Violet’ and has seldom been performed since, bar a couple of shows and radio sessions making it the Holy Grail for many devotees online. With its rolling rhythms and sombre tale of a man weighing up a lifetime of mistakes, it had the makings to become National classic. Judging by the batshit response its performance received tonight, it already is.

The new songs are all you really need

Few bands could hold a room of this size with a set that leans so heavily on new material, but the capacity crowd are hanging on to every bar of the 13 out of 17 unreleased tracks aired tonight. As well as the bubbling anthem of lead single ‘You Had Your Soul With You’ and the aching piano lullaby of follow-up ‘Light Years’, people just seem to fall automatically in love with the cinematic swoon of ‘Oblivions’, the subtle electronica of ‘Hey Rosey’, the heavenly baritone stream of consciousness ‘Not In Kansas’ and the evening’s highlight ‘Where Is Her Head’ – another heartfelt but arena-ready anthem soon to topple ‘Mr November’, ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ and ‘Graceless’ as a dream set-closer.

While rapturously received and as a glorious full stop, the encore of ‘hits’ feel a little basic and primitive when compared to the latest evolution of The National showcased tonight. There’s somehow a great deal more depth to their approach. Put it all together and festival season 2019 belongs to them. They’ve still so much to offer. The Golden Age of The National may only now be approaching .

The National, live at London’s Royal Festival Hall

The National’s setlist was:

You Had Your Soul With You
Quiet Light
Roman Holiday
Oblivions
The Pull of You
Hey Rosey
I Am Easy to Find
Where Is Her Head
So Far, So Fast
Hairpin Turns
Rylan
Light Years
Encore:
Not in Kansas
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
Bloodbuzz Ohio
I Need My Girl
Fake Empire

The National release ‘I Am Easy To Find’ on May 17, 2019.