REVIEW: The National - High Violet
Zach Hart Monday, May 17, 2010
The National - High Violet
Release Date: May 10th, 2010
There is a moment in the movie High Fidelity where John Cusak’s character Rob is at his record store idling away with a co-worker while a somber, mildly sad Belle & Sebastian song plays. He is depressed—his girlfriend just dumped him. The song is calming and possibly cathartic; not requiring too much attention and just the right amount of emotional distraction. Remember the scene? Of course the moment is not to last as Jack Black’s Barry loudly bursts into the store, cuts off the song, and puts on Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine”. After being yelled at and chastised for his interruption he says, “I was just trying to cheer us up so go ahead put on some ole sad bastard music, see if I care.”
A specific reference, yes, but in this context, in the context of The National, the exchange works. Since 2001 the band’s take on “sad bastard music” has only grown and cemented them into a permanent place at the top of the music scene. It isn’t that the band is necessarily that old or even that sad but that their songs embody the day in the life of someone who, if not down on their luck, is merely satisfied with being just okay in the middle. High Violet goes to prove that not only can the band continue to refine their sound but that they can break (and maybe even shatter) your heart with their trademark beautiful melancholy and sadness.
“Terrible Love” opens the album with its powerful crescendos woven with Matt Berninger’s trademark voice. The band has never really been one for subtlety and the instant pull of the track is definitely an attention grabber. You might recall the band’s earlier days when their songs were not always contained, where Berninger shouted and wailed on the vocals during “Abel” and “Mr. November”. With the release of Boxer those moments of vocal intensity were instead translated into the sorrowed pitch-perfect lyrics that made that album such a classic. The morose “Sorrow” goes so far as to personify sorrow as it slowly whittles the narrator down. Such heavy-handedness is to be expected of The National. This world of gloomy men and teary-eyed romantics that the band feels so comfortable placing themselves into would probably cause us to crumble; however, they survive by merely bending and not breaking.
I feel it would be a true mistake to go into High Violet looking for another “Apartment Story” (which I consider to be the greatest song of the band’s career). “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is the candidate for instant single having enough momentum to maintain those less attentive ears. There are actually several songs here which require you to do more than just listen. Slow build is an important device the band employs this time around. Often you will have to wait until the chorus (sometimes later) before the song really settles into a discernible groove. This is not necessarily a fault, merely a problem with our expectations. In a way I was a bit spoiled on my first few listens of the album. I wanted some surging rock songs blended with emotions—the type of stuff that would resonate with me. Of course the appropriate few tracks that contained these elements I enjoyed while some were merely decent. As my taste for the album matured the songs began to hit harder. My two favorite songs on the album—“Runaway” and “England”—are also the longest. In “England” our down and out guide spends most of his time brooding about how “famous angels never come through England” and that he is walking around in a Los Angeles cathedral—confused and backwards imagery—and he doesn’t “even think to make corrections. Almost out of nowhere the song triumphantly swells and all those elements of a perfect National song fall into place. In these short moments the song becomes one of the best that the band has ever done. “Runaway” is lyrically simple for the band, involving a lot of repetition and the whole time not really going anywhere. Yet, there is something so right about it. Berninger sounds almost on the brink of breaking down as he opens with “There’s no savin’ anything.” And for the rest of the song nothing looks up in the slightest yet he refuses to run from the problems. The song is handled so delicately and is so outspokenly beautiful that it almost seems like it could be crushed under the weight of all the other tracks.
Weak spots are rarely an issue with the band’s body of work and here the major gripes of High Violet may simply be with the listener. Technically none of these songs fall short; it’s just that they do not soar as high as some of the others. At times I found myself frustrated by the weight of the lyrics mainly because I could not wrap my head around them. Occasionally I want to just listen to the music while there will be moments where I just want to be able to extract every word and lyric so I can pick them apart and get the depth and meaning of them. I’m sure Berninger’s lyrics would cause any poetic fiend to explode in rapturous glee but to a casual listener (and at times any listener) the lyrics can be a bit cryptic—I mean I still don’t know what a “Lemonworld” is. But with time the stories behind these words will become as familiar as any other song the band has done.
As far as anticipation and hype goes, High Violet had a lot of pressure on it. Not merely because of how flawless Boxer is but because of how great The National is as a band. People expected their new album to be great and probably even better than their previous effort. Is it? Honestly, I don’t really think it is in the spirit of this review to ask that question. Considering the time and place I was in when Boxer came out and how emotionally attached I became to the album I don’t immediately expect it to live up to my own personal lofty expectations. However, in the days since I’ve had the album I haven’t stopped listening to it and have played it at least two or three times a day. Quantifying listens and all that jargon might seem a little trite at first but I feel that it merely proves how easy this album is to love. When the band debuted “Terrible Love” live weeks and weeks ago someone said in reference to Matt Berninger’s vocals that he could even sing “Happy Birthday” and it would still sound sad and it is probably true. From time to time The National can be emotionally devastating and they can be sad bastards and because of that they can, in fact, cheer us up. It is this raw and real power they have that is lacking from a lot of other emotionally stunted music of today. And when a band plays out emotions in such a poetic and pleasing way how can you do anything but listen and love?