By now I’ve had quite a while to sit on The National‘s new record, High Violet – but due to a crazy month of various other responsibilities I haven’t been able to get my feelings about it down until now. It’s a bit late in internet terms, and doubtless many of you have already fallen for the album, but here’s my thoughts anyway…
It’s been hard to pin down exactly what it is I love about The National – by all accounts they’re a pretty nuts and bolts rock band. There’s Matt Berninger’s rumbling baritone, and then there’s the fact that these guys are undeniably brilliant musicians with an uncanny ability to build and release tension. But it was while listening to High Violet that I realized something special about this band – and it’s the fact that they’re no rock stars. If you look at the bulk of those making this kind of music (today or ever really) it’s overwhelmingly dominated by two kinds of people: the youth and the rock stars. The youth are innovative and often relatable (we’ve all been there), but they’re also often limited by their experience – this love really will last forever! or, breaking up really is the end of the world! The rock star is arguably older and more experienced – but no matter how good they are at expressing their thoughts on life, the fact just is that their life experience is very different from most… and tends to diverge more and more as their rock-stardom increases. But Matt Berninger, throughout The National’s albums, has been able to consistently make music from the everyman’s perspective – singing about toiling at dead-end jobs, working to pay off debts, and living in real relationships (both succeeding and failing). And somehow he imbues these experiences with the kind of dramatic importance we all feel, because it’s our life.
High Violet not only touches on all these things again, but it does it with a confidence that they haven’t attained before. Not only is this one of The National’s best albums, but it is simply one of the best records I’ve heard all year.
You can tell right from the first song, “Terrible Love”, that there’s a sense of greater control and assurance here than on their past records – a sense that these guys have grown into exactly what Alligator and Boxer hinted at. But it’s at the 2:19-mark in the second track, “Sorrow” – when the wordless choral arrangement comes in and coalesces with the guitar and scaling piano, blowing up Berninger’s lonely sentiment of “I don’t want to get over you”, that I first felt the real presence of this album. It’s this presence that sets it apart from their others – where Boxer opted for dark lonely corners, Violet spreads out and slowly fills all the space in the room. There is so much going on in every second of every song, but nothing is ever superfluous – it’s all part of the vision.
The back-to-back pairing of “Afraid of Everyone” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” in the middle of the record is devastating, a perfect microcosm for the album as a whole. “Afraid of Everyone” aches with Berninger’s repeated refrain “You’re voice is swallowing my soul, soul, soul”, punctuated by Sufjan Steven’s supporting vocals and that oscillating guitar line. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is this enormous thing, blown to unreal proportions with horns and piano and those heart-stopping drums (Bryan Devendorf, The National’s drummer, is the great unsung hero of this band, by the way). It swells and shrinks and swells again, imitating what it might feel like to be “carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees”, and then abandoned in a place where Berninger sings “I owe money to the money to the money I owe”. Rather than cresting like “Bloodbuzz”, songs like “Little Faith”, “Lemonworld”, and “Runaway” roll along beautifully, providing much of the album’s back-bone. But my absolute favorite song is the penultimate track, “England”, a piano driven ballad sent from a Los Angeles cathedral to the worthless angels in England. Once again, the percussion is the unsung hero beneath the storm of beautiful noise above it, boosted by horns and strings and who-knows-what-else. It leaves me pretty breathless just about every time I hear it. After that, the Nico Muhly-produced “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” is gorgeous, and makes a fitting closer, even if it is conspicuously missing the fantastic guitar solo from their live performances. I think that might actually be my only disappointment in the entire album – and it’s a very minor one.
Whether or not The National are able to retain the sort of everyman relatability I described above is yet to be seen – they’ve received a lot of attention and praise for this album, and rightfully so. What is certain, however, is that if they continue to make music like this in the future, then we all have a lot to look forward to.
Tags: The National