Review Summary: Sorrowfully post-romantic in its drawl, yet you can’t help but swell with love.
Album covers work much like dust-jacket blurbs, icons in suspension to capture and define the musical content its withheld. The cover for ‘High Violet’ is perfectly fitting in its purpose. ‘High Violet’ unravels like drunken squiggles of measly colors across a slate canvas – grey streaks sprawl across the scene to mirror all the drab routines you coalesce into your life. In many ways, the record is the anthem for every audience below the fattest tax brackets, it sings proletariat woes, within the emotionally barren century we sleep in. The National are quintessential men-of-the-times, their work ethic (and underlying disillusionment) is distilled into their latest release. Berninger and his bandmates constructed their career without shortcuts, writing albums each a logical progression over the last, and garnering a polite amount of attention each time. This nose-to-the-grindstone humility bleeds from every quiet pause and stutter of the record, in wonderfully thin and erratic pastels.
Berninger’s voice is a vessel across this canvas. And what a melancholy paintbrush it is, vocals limply cresendoing yet commanding in ‘England’, sorrowful and straining in ‘Afraid of Everyone’. Woe-is-me sounds too comely in this tune, the punchy drums and guitars creeps slowly behind, as Berninger’s picket fence depression cries out for prescription medication (“I don’t have the drugs to sort it out”). The rhythm pounds the tribal march of the middle-class too tired to revolt, an image of what Arcade Fire's suburban kids look like after years at a steady desk job. Swells of pathetic energy thread themselves through the record, they pump with a painful sense of reminiscence in 'Lemonworld', guitarwork shuddering with refrigerator buzz. 'Conversation 16' fizzes densely for escape into something more expansive than a claustrophobic mid-life crisis.
The sticking point of 'High Violet' is that adjectives like "monotonous", "fuzzy" and "tired" work in its favor rather than against it. It seems almost humble as it plays out, certainly absent of the antiquated flamboyance present in most of their peers. The record hums reclusively like an aging computer in a cubicle farm. Occasionally it flourishes with the signature of The National, majestic horns in 'England' puffs and pushes the surrounding instrumentation to the front where they glitter, much like two crashing waves - it's beautiful to witness. Elsewhere, 'High Violet' succumbs to its ennui. Lullaby-like 'Runaway' strolls slowly on and on about a chorus of surrender. More pitiful than poignant, yet it marks the quietest moment on 'High Violet'.
What ‘High Violet’ eventually accomplishes is loosely pasting a sense of majesty to modern existence. Not consciously reaching for grandiose, simply settling for illuminating the bourgeois with luke-warm hope. Sorrowfully post-romantic in its drawl, yet you can’t help but swell with love.