The National aren’t that interesting. They are average looking men making music, and during their live show they make occasional comments here and there, but after the show most likely go do things normal people would do like read a book or drink something strong. The band’s constant display throughout their catalog of experiences of men being fathers, husbands and brothers amongst other things gives a true meaning to their work as white-collared Americans. Comprised of two pairs of brothers, Aaron and Bryce Dessner (guitars and bass), and Scott and Bryan Devendorf (bass and drums, respectively) and brought together with lead man Matt Berninger, the experiences of the group bleeds into their music. We may be witnessing the band at their finest moment, because new album High Violet is a stunner.
The band used the success of their previous critically acclaimed Boxer to get some good months of touring under their belt, using the time to find new songs and inspirations and “road testing” the new material. When it came time to return to the studio after some much needed time off, the band picked up where they left off with Peter Katis, who’s wedding infamously graces the cover of Boxer, with the band playing in the background on a dark, spotlit stage. The band truly excels in the studio, and throughout High Violet, they create exceptional sound-scapes and consistently good tracks that are worth talking about each and individual one. Not to mention they did it with the help of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Sufjan Stevens to lend their vocals to create a more harmonic sound than we’ve heard in the past from the band. However, I only have a few paragraphs to keep your attention, so that can be another project for another day.
Throughout the record, we see a piece of art that comes from a group of musicians pouring their heart into everything they’ve done. After receiving a decent amount of praise for their stellar 2005 Alligator, we’ve seen a band grow into something that has become bigger than most had expected. Their sound on High Violet is particularly large, even more so than Boxer had expanded their sound. On past records, there were those songs that were easily picked out as “radio-friendly” tracks (“Lit Up”, “Apartment Story”, “Mistaken For Strangers”), but on this release, those songs aren’t easily found. Whether that’s lead single “Bloodbuzz Ohio” giving us a pummeling drum kick throughout, or maybe even “Anyone’s Ghost”, straightforward choruses and sections are hard to come by throughout the album. This is what makes it work — you hear tracks from the band that aren’t something you understand immediately, when in all reality, the band has given us a collection of eleven incredible tracks that bleed thoughts and feelings of regret and anguish, amongst many others.
“I don’t want to get over you” Berninger murmurs on “Sorrow”, coming from a man who has done nothing but give us all the emotions, trials and tribulations of a middle aged man throughout his work as the lead singer and scribe of The National. The lyrics Berninger delivers are something that you can feel, and the emotion purely engraved into the band’s music gives us the ability to feel those things through every listen. Throughout the first half of the record, the Dessner brothers display some of the best guitar work we’ve seen from the band, but at times it can get overshadowed by the bombastic drums and projective brass arrangements. Sandwiched between slow churning opener “Terrible Love” and another build up explosive track “Afraid of Everyone”, the run of “Sorrow”-“Anyone’s Ghost”-“Little Faith” supports a very graceful first half of the record.
The work the group has done on High Violet isn’t something that jumps out and is immediately recognizable, it’s a sound that sinks in and blossoms into something more. “Runaway” pumps the breaks on the record after “Bloodbuzz”, with Berninger’s croon of “I won’t be no runaway, ’cause I won’t run” as the fearless message overtakes it’s tip-toeing guitar section. Most of his lyrics are quite melancholy, but the band backs his words with their displays of utter triumph, with songs as the incredibly bombastic and second half standout “England” as well as the strings-soaked “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, completely soaked in grandiose string sections. At one point, it all made sense when I discovered the nearly-unnoticeable yet immaculate bass line of “Conversation 16”, which methodically sinks beneath the rest. It’s moments like that which make the record something to talk about. Whether the band is really concerned with us talking about their epic tour-de-force of a release, we’ll be discussing this one for some time.
WPGU Music Staff Rating: W-P-G-U
Key Tracks: “England”, “Afraid of Everyone”, “Conversation 16”
Recommended if you like: Interpol, The Walkmen, and Spoon.
W = Poor
W-P = Fair
W-P-G = Great
W-P-G-U = An instant classic!