Review Summary: The National's High Violet is a stunning work of art that will hardly be surpassed in musicianship, passion and vision, anytime soon in this new decade.
Although not immediately apparent from energetic, but not so polished sounding opening track, "Terrible Love", High Violet is an ambitious and lush sounding album. It is the National taking their craft to the next level. While technically it is an indie album, this is the sound for the masses, sound for these uncertain, fast-changing times. The band has been on a hot streak, especially with their last two full lengths releases, garnering critical praise as well as many new devoted fans. Those two: 2005 Alligator and 2007 Boxer each had a distinctive flavor. While Alligator had more musical range and featured two songs that featured Matt Berninger's primal screaming (“Abel” and “Mr. November”) Boxer was more cohesive as a whole and displayed a lot of restraint and tension. Hardcore fans were left wondering how will High Violet compare. And the answer is: it is somewhere in-between the two.
The National are a certainly a band where each member brings their share to the table, but not many will disagree that two signature aspects of the band are Matt Berninger’s voice and Bryan Devendorf’s drumming. Good news is that on High Violet both of them sound better than ever. Matt’s baritone (often compared to Nick Cave or Tindersticks' Stuart A. Staples) has been stretched to the upper boundaries with great results. This is most obvious on "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks", "Afraid Of Everyone" and the chorus of "Little Faith". Bryan’s usually highly dynamic drumming is well, more dynamic and more varied than ever. Just listen to the clicking cymbals and their interaction with other pieces of drum kit in "Sorrow" and "Conversation 16" or heartbeat like, muted kick drum of "Runaway". And while we are on the subject of drumming, here we find something that distinguishes the National from any other band in music, and it is best found in song “Sorrow”. Almost any other band with those lyrics would sound dreary, depressed, but Bryan figuratively speaking, like the physical heart of the band keeps the song’s blood pumping, making it sound at the same time exhilarating, as Matt’s deep vocal delivery, especially the line "I don’t wanna get over you", makes it chilling. I confess that playing "Sorrow" while driving I still haven’t been able to stop tapping the stirring wheel of my car!
Another one of the highlights of the album, in the album full of highlights is above mentioned "Afraid Of Everyone" which features high background vocals by band’s friend Sufjan Stevens and lyrical display of paranoia of a father (as Matt has also recently become one) in post 9/11 world. Its lyrics and mood are nicely accented with paranoid sounding guitar riff and one part marching, another part machine gun-like drumming pattern. And the way this song ends with Matt repeating haunting line “You’re the voices swallowing my soul, soul, soul” while Bryan behind the drum kit unloads what sounds like a few clips of his machine gun drum pattern, making it the highlight moment in ten year history of this hardworking NYC via Ohio band.
Furthermore, the band has expanded their sound by the increased use of orchestra, wind instruments and strings. It’s safe to say that every song features some parts played by the classical instruments. This is however done with lots of finesse, as these five men masterly know how much is enough before they enter dangerous MOR waters. And this may be the qualities I admire the most in the National--their talent to know when to hold back instead just go for it and sound like just another U2 or Coldplay with their stadium anthems (not that those two didn’t create two of the most emotionally incredible moments in rock music in last 20 years in "One" and "the Scientist", respectively).
Additionally, this time around songs’ lyrics seem to be much more direct, more personal and less cryptic or about the lives of others (with maybe exception in "Conversation 16", "Lemonworld" and "Vanderlyle"). This superbly correlates with Matt’s more emotional singing, making the album easily their warmest to date. Obviously, in the past they’ve had a few songs on each release that would be in this category such as the fan favorite "About Today" (from Cherry Tree EP), "Daughters Of The Soho Riots" (from Alligator) or "Slow Show" (from the Boxer), but here the whole album permeates warmth even when not lyrically then by its sound.
High Violet is National’s most accomplished work, something they have hinted at in the past five years. Here they literally take helm as Americas finest rock band, carefully walking the line of artistic credibility and accessibility, releasing something that will be hard to surpass in musicianship, passion and vision, anytime soon in this new decade.