I didn’t think a band was supposed to work this way in these times: follow up the most successful album of your career with one that could potentially become the least likely to succeed.
But I can’t say enough about High Violet, the National‘s fifth album and most ambitious release to date, not only in terms of how its woe ultimately takes the wind out of any momentum that Boxer may have provided it, but how focused, smart, and goddamn good it sounds in those dark corners of personal abyss.
Yes, High Violet is one of those albums: trudging through slow-tempo depression, looking for drugs you’ve hidden to shed a little light on your condition. But it’s also an effort of meticulous concentration. There’s not an inch of magnetic tape wasted and no notes that haven’t been democratically thought out. It’s the album that everyone thought those other N.Y.C. bands that graced the music mags at the first part of this century would be making by this point. Instead, it was released by the least likely to succeed—the band that stuck to practicing and reading Dostoyevsky rather than wasting the day shopping for clothes and reading N.M.E. nutswing articles about themselves.
Singer Matt Berninger admits, “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out,” on “Afraid Of Everyone,” but you get the feeling that it has nothing to do with the success that the National have found during their run. Instead, the discontent sounds like the same old shit that you and I stress about, the stuff that has you popping an extra Vicodin, Oxycodone, or Adderall just to give some feeling to the machinery of life.
At first—particularly in High Violet‘s first half—it’s hard to hear the splendor but by “Bloodbuzz Ohio” rolls around, things start getting great.
Much of the band’s success falls on the throat of Berninger. Understand, I will do anything in my power to cut a lead singer down to size, but here, Beringer’s baritone is critical to the overall timbre of defeat. Put him in a vocal league next to Ian Curtis, Richard Butler, and Michael Gira, but he’s clearly ahead of his peers in the post millennium N.Y.C. rock resurgence. Strangely enough, Berninger has less of a range than Julian Casablancas or Paul Banks, but he sounds a hell of a lot more honest than either of ’em.
As do the respective other members at play here. Brothers Dessner and Devendorf paint huge landscapes across the record, as colorful as the album title may suggest. They do it with simple patterns and slow-build arrangements. The weird thing about their dynamics throughout High Violet is how the next step up in the song’s grandiosity may be an extra tambourine or some gentle strings. Their restraint is admirable and it allows the listener to put as much emotional weight into the song as they want to.
Truth be told, that may be a benefit as occasionally you’ll catch yourself getting all worked up only to hear Beringer utter, “I was afraid I’d eat your brains,” or “I’ll explain everything to the geese.”
But whatever, High Violet is so appropriately arranged, professionally executed and so blatantly intent on sounding like one of the year’s best albums that it actually becomes exactly that.