High Violet – The National (May 2010)

In my first month at college, a friend, knowing that I was into other bands that embraced the Springsteenian rebirth that is currently affecting independent music like The Hold Steady and Arcade Fire, introduced me to The National, ordering that I pop Boxer into my disc drive.  He wouldn’t even let me wait until the disc finished ripping, he ordered me to play it right then and there, and then “Fake Empire” began to go through my speakers.  There was a silent beauty to the piano and Berninger’s engaging baritone murmur, but I didn’t understand until Bryan Devendorf quickly blew the song into a grandiose anthem that I felt was promised.  “Mistaken For Strangers” and “Brainy” then brought me to fall in love with the band, but Boxer always felt like something was missing.  Their synthesis of Springsteen and Joy Division was triumphant and huge, but at the same time it was restrained and shy.

Over half a year later, in May, a torrent of veteran independent releases from many of my favorite bands occupied my time, and The National fell to the back of my listening queue, partly thanks to me being let down by what I felt was a gutted version of the opener, “Terrible Love,” compared to what we saw on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.  By the time I had finally finished immersing myself in the latest by Broken Social Scene, I dove into High Violet ready for something that wouldn’t measure up to the majesty of Boxer.  Instead, though, every song clicked so well that few songs on either Boxer or Alligator would be in the same league as even the lowest points of High Violet.  Like they could only on occasion before (“Mistaken For Strangers,” “Mr. November”), The National gained confidence, and they maintained it throughout the entirety of their fifth album.

Using a tried and true subject matter, High Violet’s opening three songs are all devastating songs about longing and heartbreak.  “Terrible Love,” the album version of which begins subdued and unsure but blossoms into a swirling vortex of pure despair, hits the nail on the head about emotional alienation (whether he’s saying “It’s quite a company” or “It’s quiet company”), and as the song begins to crack under the explosion of its own grandeur, the most enchanting moment of the album comes with the repeated chant of “It takes an ocean not to break.”  The next two songs don’t stop piling on the self-pity and longing: “Don’t leave my hyper heart alone/On the water/Cover me in rag and bone/Sympathy/’Cause I don’t want to get over you” and “Didn’t want to be/Your Ghost/Didn’t want to be/Anyone’s ghost/But I don’t want anybody else.”  For how confident his songwriting is, Berninger has never seemed so down.

In an interview with The A.V. Club’s Steven Hyden, Berninger spoke about how hard he worked on melody with High Violet, which is obvious in all songs on here, particularly on the could-be pop songs “Sorrow” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”  On top of finding a new knack for melody, the songs on High Violet not only swell like they did on previous albums, but they have payoff to their buildups, which is demonstrated by the outro on “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”  Not only does The National advance their songcraft to new heights, but they finally assemble an album in a satisfying arrangement, which is made easy by the consistency.  It isn’t until the dénouement, though, until you realize just how everything ties together.  “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” the only songs with a string arrangement in the backing, contains a self-spoken beauty as it earnestly closes the album.

Upon achieving parenthood, many artists write the hokiest songs of their career.  They feel pleasance where they once felt fury, and they lose their edge with a song about how there’s such a beautiful world for their child to experience.  However, Matt Berninger doesn’t feel that.  He’s completely horrified about being a father, and instead of learning of new beauty, he only knows fear for his child.  On “Afraid Of Everyone,” he realizes potential threats to his year-old daughter, looking at the world as a deathtrap which he once thought safe.  While The National’s increased maturity is refreshing, the way that Matt and company convey it is unique in that they turn lyrical convention on its head.  While the pop sensibilities, lyrical evolution, and songwriting innovation all lead to High Violet being a fantastic album, the primary expansion from the always-serious Boxer is that, as as is apparent in the straight-faced zombie chorus of “Conversation 16” and the “doot doot”s of “Lemonworld,” the band is having fun.  They’re not as self-serious, and they’re not afraid to make a few mistakes, even though the end result is flawless.


Published in: on July 25, 2010 at 12:20 AM  Comments (1)  

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