Review Summary: While The National may be “Afraid of Everyone”, it seems more fitting that everyone should be afraid of The National, for with this third masterpiece, the Brooklyn-based indie quintet have secured themselves as the best band in modern indie.
At one point, I loathed everything about this band. I gave both “Alligator” and “Boxer” (the quintet’s two previous efforts) numerous fair listens, and struggled to connect with each album in any way; I could not find anything appealing whatsoever. I could barely stand the subdued way in which vocalist Matt Beringer mumbles, I was bitterly irritated by what I thought were obnoxious lyrics and monotonous melodies, and I failed to distinguish anything intelligent or interesting about the melancholic vibe that seemed to be their signature (and only) sound. Well, one day, on a chilly Monday morning, I walked on to the bus to go to school. I turned on “Apartment Story”, a track from “Boxer”, and listened to it all the way to school while the rain viciously pounded the window that my head was pressed up against. During that short moment, when I looked out at the morning’s freezing rain, with the fuzzy guitar attacks of “Apartment Story” flooding my headphones, I got ‘it’. I finally realized what the band was about, and for the rest of that week, my ears would be inundated with every song from “Alligator” and “Boxer”. By the end of that week, The National became my favorite indie band of all time, and “Slow Show” was my ‘morning song’, a piece that I could not start my day without. I didn’t think that the band’s new record “High Violet” would surpass their two previous efforts, but for me, it beats “Alligator” and almost equals “Boxer”. If you need an album to stare off into the distance too while pondering the future of your life, or if you just want an album that soars past anything else in modern indie rock, look no further than 2010’s best album “High Violet”.
This album has so many positive qualities that I’m finding it difficult to isolate which ones to focus on specifically, for a thirty page drool session conveying my immense fanboyism would clearly be superfluous. I could easily go on a three-page rant about the masterful use of strings and horns, and how they flawlessly complement each other throughout every track without ever lacking musically or feeling out of context, or I could write a forty page in-depth analysis of Beringer’s colorful and varied vocal melodies, and I could even present an oral essay on the audible orgasm I receive when Beringer climbs to the top of his vocal range to scream the final minute of “England”, while being accompanied by the outrageously loud yet artistically flawless arrangement in the background. I could do all these things, and basically just did, but the most important characteristic of “High Violet”, besides it being yet another logical step forward musically for the band, are the highlight tracks and how well they fit in.
“England”, my favorite song on the album, is possibly the best song the band has ever written, only being rivaled by “The Geese of Beverly Road” from “Alligator” and “Apartment Story” from “Boxer”. For the first four minutes, “England” fully surpasses any expectation; from a catchy and dense piano-dominated introduction, to the outlandish yet somehow familiar tone of the horns that blast lightly at the end of each chorus, and later more loudly towards the end of the piece. Every violin pluck, every piano riff, and every spine-chilling melody from Beringer all blend together as one grand instrument, a huge step away from “Boxer”, where the instruments were more clearly separated. The final minute and a half of the song is undoubtedly the most memorable moment on the album. It is simply the repetition of the intriguing lines:
“Try to be nice stay the night with the sinners
Try to be nice stay the night with the sinners
Try to be nice cause we're desperate to entertain”
Behind the repetition of these lines is a forceful and drawn out crescendo that gets louder with every passing second; the volume of the strings that float in the background elevate, Matt screams louder, the drums get louder, everything gets exaggerated and phenomenally louder as the end to the song draws nearer. This spectacular and unfortunately only minute-long moment needs to be experienced through one’s ears; it’s hard to explain just how remarkable it is. “England’ is beautifully constructed, and while a paragraph may be a bit much for one normal song, it’s not too much for the best song of the year.
Another highlight is “Conversation 16” which features a smooth and synthy intro that eventually meets with the bare mumblings of Beringer. The song’s highlight is the performance by the drummer, who brilliantly chugs throughout the whole song, while occasionally striking a different array of symbols, and of course, that memorable little drum fill that makes its appearance about three times throughout the song, one being 3:32 exactly, another essential ‘listen-to’ moment on the album. An ordinary drum fill of course, but what’s so remarkable is how perfectly placed it seems to be. Another great track is the ambient (for lack of a better word) ballad “Sorrow”, which begins with an unusual ‘A’ chord that is strummed quickly and precisely, and that little strumming pattern sets the tone for the entire song in terms of mood. Other highlights include the mellow “Runaway”, which features some of Beringer’s best melodies, and is arguably his most noteworthy vocal performance on the album. The song also contains a continuous and subtle arrangement that suspiciously gives off more than what your ears actually hear, and it totally captivates me and puts me right in the moment when The National first wrote it. The controversially mixed, lo-fi “Terrible Love” is another highlight, as is the brilliant “Afraid of Everyone” which not only is a superior song musically, but when following the lyrics carefully, I seem to become a tad more paranoid myself, each time I listen. Every song on this effort fulfills its purpose.
Besides the actual songs themselves, the other most remarkable quality about “High Violet” is the fact that it’s very well mixed and produced. The uniqueness of every track in terms of mixing is so diverse, that it seems like they used a different producer and a different recording studio for each song; from the muddy and fuzzy production (No, this is a good thing) of “Terrible Love”, to the deep and lucid tone of the acoustic guitar in “Sorrow” to the electric guitar and heavenly harmonics in “Lemonworld” (The only true saving grace in that song). The album itself never seems monotonous; every song provides a different color and texture, and they complement each other perfectly as an album.
So far, this review seems to be making “High Violet” to be a perfect 5/5 right? Well, unfortunately, while still a masterpiece, it is not without its tiny blunders. The song “Lemonworld” is sort of obnoxious; the lyrics seem a little immature and pointless, as are Matt Beringer’s “Deh deh deh deh” mumblings at the end of each chorus. The song doesn’t offer much, and is definitely a low point for an otherwise perfect album. The only other track that I consider to not match up to others in terms of song writing is “Little Faith”, which is still a solid song, but doesn’t do much to make it stand out in any way besides the idiosyncratic intro that is comprised of fuzzy distortion and a quirky little synth. Besides these two tracks, the only other negative aspect of “High Violet” is the fact that it should have ended with the epic “England” instead of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”. While “Vanderlyle” is still a great song, it seems like “England” would have been a better way in which to end this record.
In conclusion, it seems that The National never ceases to amaze me, and this album is the most fitting example of that conclusion. While this may not have surpassed their opus, “Boxer”, “High Violet” has already secured itself as the best album of the year, and it shows that The National is not one of those bands who falter following a masterpiece. I am not afraid to say that The National are currently the kings of their genre.
“Afraid of Everyone”