Review Summary: My Half of Heart: High Violet and Depression
Like many writer types, I’ve been stricken with depression all of my life.
Visions of my youth means visions of confusion and sadness, inseparable from each other. Somewhere, in the way back of my mind, exists a memory of a very young me piling his mattress against his bedroom door to bar his parent’s entry, holding his head in emotional turmoil and having no idea why he’s so sad all the time. I’ve bounced in and out of enough doctors’ offices and swallowed enough capsules to realize something about my affliction, I’m afraid to lose depression.
When I find myself submerged, I sweep my vision over its luxuriously dark colors, and look into its milky face to find one that looks like mine staring back at me. Because unlike the emotions it typically shares space with, anger and sadness, depression wants to be loved. The hotter, more violent emotions find comfort in their rage and self-absorption. A peace of mind is achieved in their total separation. Depression looks up like a lost child, he reaches his hands up to you and flexes his fingers, it begs and pleads to be held and comforted. He weeps because he is alone. I have shared a bedroom with his dim visage, I have found solace in his sympathetic company and we have cried together.
“It’s quiet company.”
The National were formed in 1999 by a group of four guys with a lofty goal, to be in a band and maintain functional adult lives at the same time. One imagines the group seated at a table in a bar. One member suggests they form a band, everyone nods, the next suggests “The National”, everyone nods, drinks are raised, everyone’s home before 11. After their first two albums underperformed in the states (Big in France though!) they hit upon some particularly deep vein of inspiration with their third release, Alligator
. The set of concepts and ideas present in Alligator
would extend to their next three albums, Boxer
, High Violet
, and Trouble Will Find Me
. Each is excellent, so closely intertwined they demand a lavish boxset containing all four.
Matt Berninger has spent many hours with depression. He has questioned the usefulness of his Graphic Design degree with him, sat and zoned when the crushing debt of financing his own music descended, he slept next to him in the hotels of distant countries as he embarked on long tours, and he whispered terrible things in his ear when, in the afterglow of the birth of his daughter, he felt an awful and crushing pressure on his shoulders. Depression was borne again in his throat, wholly and totally. His magnificent baritone conveys not just depression’s sadness but also its singular and elegant beauty. “And I/Can't fall asleep/Without a li-” he pauses, “-ttle help/It takes a while/to settle down/my ship of hopes/wait til the past/leaks out.” Opener “Terrible Love” spins about its sheets in the throes of mania, ideas and concepts blasting through its head uncontrollably. “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders”, the drums beat onward, “It’s a terrible love I’m walking in.”
The band rushes time and space past his ears as he sings. Aaron and Bryce Dresser, brothers by birth, pour sibling rivalry though cracked and fuzz drenched riffs. Scott and Bryan Devendorf prove that a perfectly synced up drum and bass combo make great bands otherworldly. They summon an epic tidal wave of force that would shame the best Arcade Fire songs, all on the opening track. In their sadness, The National are a family, they stand strong together and beat back the darkness with some of the most graceful and gorgeous music I have ever heard.
The intertwining of sadness and beauty is nothing new but the way The National approach the darkness of adult life with such refinement certainly feels new. In case the previous paragraphs didn’t make it clear, The National make some downcast music, but to simply label it “sad” doesn’t touch upon the world of emotions they find in those three letters.
”Sorrow found me when I was young.”
So begins the second song on High Violet and the best single song The National have made to date, “Sorrow”. In it, they personify depression. They make him whole and human. They lay a tender, fatherly hand on his shoulder and walk with him, listening to his story. Anyone who has felt the menacing push of psychiatrists couch will find a great deal of relation with this song. While the verses are open to much interpretation, sorrow flitting between a body on the waves and a girl inside a cage, a very simple and very desperate statement anchors the chorus.
“Don’t leave my half of heart alone […] Cause I don’t want to get over you.”
The National are sad but not sacks. Scott and Bryan Devendorf make sure of that. Bryan is simply one of the most low key creative drummers in indie rock history. He’s never flashy, never contributing more than the song can handle. His patterns on “Anyone’s Ghost” and “Little Faith” are executed with stunning precision. He’s as in the pocket as Clyde Stubblefield. The little touches are dazzling too; the way he rolls on the rim during the 2nd verse of “Little Faith” is a subtle hook. Bryan’s basslines are strong and forceful and, during “Little Faith”, kind of funky. They’re muscular and big, always making sure the songs don’t wallow in pity.
Berninger paints fragments of confrontations, tense moments, and the descending feeling of grief for no reason. No attempt at any particular insight, just loads of interpretation. “Bloodbuzz Ohio”s “I still owe money, to the money, to the money I owe” is the albums most quoted line and the most quietly devastating. It sounds like standing in front of a kitchen table loaded with bills. He doesn’t always succeed - I still can’t quite figure out how to relate to “You and your sister live in a lemonworld… doot doot doot doot doo” – but more often than not he nails it. And on “Conversation 16”, he absolutely crushes it.
”I think the kids are in trouble/do not know what all the troubles are for”
Berninger's tense moments feel more vividly realized on “Conversation 16” than anything he’s done to date. “Live on coffee and flowers/Try not to wonder what the weather will be/I figured out what we’re missing/I tell you miserable things after you are asleep.” Perhaps most painful of all is the second verses somber admission, “It’s a Hollywood summer/You’ll never believe the ***ty thoughts I think.”
All of this just builds to a swooning, staggering chorus. “Now we’ll leave the silver city cause all the silver girls/Gave us black dreams,” evocative for sure but the jaw dropping stuff is happening behind him, as the ghostly choir that haunts the whole of the album swoops from the sky only to arc off into the air again before hitting the ground.
On grand finale, “England”, the clouds finally break. It’s not happiness, but it is clarity. The music is triumphant but we’re still fuming with jealousy over her Facebook profile, “You must be somewhere in London,” seethes Berninger, “You must be loving your life in the rain” while the music behind him swells into something that could soundtrack the grand finale of a movie. “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” is the epilogue. It sounds crushed, but also, determined. It beats forward into the night. It is a resolved ending, we live to see another day.
Without depression Elliot Smith and Kurt Cobain would spring back to life, their music erased. Didn’t Kurt “miss the comfort in being sad” after he starting numbing the depression out of him? What is creativity without depression?
The National do not have the answers to these questions, they don’t even try to answer them. They simply know depression is part of being human. The National are sad but never pitiful, angry but never bitter, mournful but never defeated. High Violet
taps into something very essential about depression, its humanity. Depression is inspired and graceful. It’s at times magnificent. It questions itself. It ponders its own existence. It seeks to create, sometimes succeeding wildly, sometimes failing. Its intentions are good. It takes and it gives. It creates and destroys. It lives and dies. It loves and hates.
“It’s quiet company.”