Review Summary: One of the greatest bands of our time unceremoniously drops their strongest record to date, almost as if it wasn’t a huge deal.High Violet
could be the most unassuming work to be released by any artist in the past decade. It is sluggish, tepid, and monotonous – and to a first time listener, it may even appear that lead singer Matt Berninger is bored. His baritone vocals hardly budge, concealing emotion deep within a vault that only opens in infrequent bursts such as the energy-packed ‘Mr. November’ from The National’s third LP Alligator
or the bitter, introspective ‘All Dolled-Up In Straps’ from their Cherry Tree
EP. The music has always been low-key, but High Violet
sees the band even more subdued, crafting eleven consecutive hushed, low-key ballads that breathe just enough to keep the album alive. All of these combined qualities would spell disaster for any other band, and that is just what makes The National such an anomaly in the modern indie scene. Not only do they possess these traits, but they turn them into strengths that are unmatched by any band in any genre, straight across the board. The National prevail by being The National; and for those of you who aren’t familiar with exactly what that means, there may be no better descriptor than the gorgeously melancholic album that carved one band’s niche in a generation forever.
sees The National continue to refine their critically acclaimed sound, taking characteristics from Alligator
and fusing it into one undeniably soulful experience. While these elements have been even further tempered, nearly to the point of detachment, one can still feel the traces of emotion struggling to break free. In some cases, that emotion is
numbness – just listen to the way Berninger sings “I don’t wanna get over you” in ‘Sorrow’, taking a line that has been stated to death by countless musicians and giving it new life by sounding, well…lifeless
. After all, isn’t that how you feel when such a thought is dwelling in your mind" You aren’t gleefully belting out Broadway-style hooks, that’s for sure – and Berninger’s mournful laments reflect the feeling of heartbreak perfectly. ‘Conversation 16’ is another instance in which The National captivate their listeners in counterintuitive fashion. Since when does a line like “I was afraid I’d eat your brains, cause I’m evil” count as poetic" Amongst the airy guitars and Bryan Devendorf’s phenomenal drumming, even seemingly ridiculous lyrics like these have found a home – and to be honest, they are really moving when you take everything into account from Berninger’s desperation to the brilliant instrumental backdrop that accompanies it. From track to track The National manage to exude personality despite their relatively minimal output of energy, and that is something worthy of recognition in itself.
To avoid complete stagnancy, The National integrate a lot of subtleties that not only keep the songs mobile, but also set them apart from their surroundings. Take ‘Terrible Love’ for example, a song that opens the record noticeably more amped-up than the tracks that follow. It sounds fuzzy, almost as if you are turning a radio knob and are within a half of a millimeter of gaining full reception. While that may seem like a minute detail, it sets an early tone for what the record will be: rugged, forlorn, tired…all of these are traits that we may associate with High Violet
without knowing exactly how we came to those conclusions. More ideas bubble under the surface of every single track, giving each one a unique flavor that helps it stand out in the foggy, mist-covered ocean that is High Violet
. In ‘Anyone’s Ghost’, it is the barely audible humming that echoes in the background of the chorus that gives the song its haunting atmosphere. In ‘England’, the magisterial horns highlight the song’s key transitions like royalty’s triumphant return to the castle. In ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ the luminous, multi-tracked vocal harmonies suggest that maybe The National aren’t a bunch of dejected buzz-kills after all. Every song has its subtle quality that makes it worthwhile, and each one is just
difficult enough to put your finger on that it makes High Violet
worthy of multiple listens.
The National prove on this album that they are the best at what they do: from the wave-like progression of momentum to the aforementioned finer points. High Violet is a triumph in every sense: guitars, drumming, vocals, lyrics, and the dynamics between each one of those aspects. Not only is this album easy to identify as one of the overarching achievements of the past decade, but it also solidifies The National as one of the best bands of our era. Boxer, Alligator, and now High Violet – they are all arguably classics of the modern era, and if their consistent top-of-the-line output offers a glimpse into the future, it is a safe bet that The National will continue to amaze us for years to come. They are almost perfect, and here’s to hoping that they won’t even think to make corrections.