The National played some excellent new music at their triumphant Primavera set last night

Although it does seem like Matt Berninger has forgotten how to use his limbs

For a band whose solemn if not doleful exterior has now-and-again been misread as dejection, Friday night’s main stage headline performance felt like one great exhale. It’s as close to a party set as The National get, careening through the blissful highs of a near-faultless career now entering its third decade, one unlikely singalong at a time. 

They have previous at Primavera Sound, first performing in Parc del Forúm just over a decade ago. It’s a crowd that’s always welcomed them, and in turn they’ve always been rewarded with sets that stray from the rest of the band’s European run, if just in the collaborators they’ve historically brought onstage: Justin Vernon, Sufjan Stevens, Hamilton Leithauser, Paul Maroon. Tonight it’s just them, and all the more focused for it.

“I forgot how great it is to do this,” beams intellect-by-proxy frontman Matt Berninger, twisting an imaginary Rubik’s cube in his palm. It’s been so long since they played in front of a crowd that he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Realising the awkwardness of limbs that seem totally disconnected from his body, he laughs: tonight, we get a whole new set of nervous tics masquerading as choreography. “It’s a special night for you guys.” He’s right, of course, but not for the dancing. 

Usually a marauding liability, the close sermonic interactions between band and audience disappear into a strange serenity. There’s no stage diving drunk with the obsessive reclamation of character flaws and music to hate yourself to. The Dessner twins share more than the occasional glance to each other that you could even mistake for pride, as if they were childminding, watching their friend fall back in love with performing on his own terms. 

There’s an unobtrusive proposal in the crowd during ‘I Need My Girl’ – one even Jenny Hval couldn’t begrudge – as tears domino through a five person radius, and the opening lines of the following track ‘This Is The Last Time’ fill a strange congregation in a brand new context: “Oh, when I lift you up you feel like a hundred times yourself.” Nobody tell the happy couple that it ends out being a toxic relationship. “That’s how I’d describe the last three years of my life,” Berninger mumbles. “Sad and high. Now I’m just high.”

As the crepuscular night dims into perfect black, two new songs get a festival debut, greeted with as much magnetised attention as those where every syllable’s a tattoo. The weather-beaten romanticism of ‘Grease In Your Hair’ combs a ‘Slow Show’ strum into wide open spaces, while a high point of the entire evening is ‘Tropic Morning News’, which could be an Alligator b-side in its live costume. They dedicate the new music to Fontaines D.C., one of their favourite new bands who played earlier in the afternoon.

The night ends with ‘About Today’, filtering through thousands of enamoured sighs as the Dessner and Devendorf brothers move into slow focus with the confidence of a strong keeper and defence. It’s an honest exchange, with absolute gratitude shared in complete silence – we’re right here.

Photography by Eric Pàmies