The National – High Violet
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Before I get to talking about why High Violet is one of the best records of the year so far, there’s something I’ve got to clear up: The National are not boring. Throughout their career, this has been an accusation that has unfairly dogged the band, as many of their most laudatory reviews throughout their career still hold their work at a distance.
What causes this hedging is simple: quick review cycles. Critics usually have to churn out a review or two a week, and spending large amounts of time with a record usually comes after. Their third LP, Alligator, was a victim of this syndrome. It was routinely underrated by the critics who eventually fell in love with it, and their next album Boxer was overrated in turn. Boxer was a very good album, but it fell short of total greatness. Alligator was the kind of record where any song could be your favorite. Boxer was a bit too subdued for its own good, and some of lead singer Matt Berninger’s lyrics seemed forced when compared to Alligator’s bruised bravado.
But the thing that kept me coming back to Boxer was the way its lyrical themes continued a vague “storyline” begun with their previous record. Alligator’s lyrics spoke of youth collapsing, bravado falling apart and revealing a bruised need for acceptance and success. By the last track on Alligator, “Mr. November,” Berninger was screaming “I won’t fuck us over!” — trying to convince himself as much as us. Boxer’s narrative pull had more to do with learning to live with the idea of getting older and settling into quiet domesticity.
On High Violet, Berninger is tired of that earned comfort. The record’s opening line throws that into sharp relief: “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders.” The next song is called “Sorrow”. It’s easy to tell that he’s not growing old quietly. His lyrics on High Violet are the best of the band’s career.
The lyric’s resonance is amplified by the band’s ability to complement his turns-of-phrase perfectly. Note how the music drops out at exactly the right time in “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” or album MVP “Lemonworld”‘s quick movement from Berninger’s “Dying in New York means nothing to me,” to the bridge. This movement suggests his inability to dwell on what causes these feelings of utter detachment. He’s not quite grown up yet, and he knows it. But he doesn’t want to think about it, because thinking about sadness just makes you more fucking sad. The way the band amplifies this musically helps us feel his sorrow without shoving it in our face.
Maybe that’s why people call this band boring, as there’s a nuance that’s lost on casual listens. More than anything The National’s put out before, High Violet requires and rewards close listening. Is this record better than Alligator? Probably not. Every song on their breakthrough was perfect, and the comparably uninteresting and overlong “Runaway” brings the middle of the album down a bit.
But music doesn’t work on paper, it works emotionally. I got into to Alligator in high school, when my youth was collapsing and I didn’t know what to do with myself. Now I’m 21 and I still don’t know, but my anger has turned into a slight disappointment. I’m happier than Berninger puts himself out to be here, but High Violet hits me with greater force at this particular moment in life. Alligator may be a better record, but it doesn’t feel like home anymore. With every listen, High Violet gets more and more powerful. I’ve taken some stabs at why anyone would call this band boring, but in all honesty I have no idea. There’s real feeling in this music, and that’s almost impossible to find in the bins shoved with bands obsessed with irony and bullshitting. If you’ve ever been sad or frustrated, buy this record. Yeah, that’s everyone.