The National - High Violet
Label: 4AD – CAD3X03
Format: 2 × Vinyl, LP, Album
Pressed on 180 gram vinyl.
Released: 11 May 2010
Style: Indie Rock
A1 Terrible Love 4:40
A2 Sorrow 3:25
A3 Anyone's Ghost 2:54
B1 Little Faith 4:37
B2 Afraid Of Everyone
Harmony Vocals [Harmonies] – Sufjan Stevens 4:19
B3 Bloodbuzz Ohio 4:36
C1 Lemonworld 3:24
C2 Runaway 5:34
C3 Conversation 16
Harmony Vocals [Harmonies] – Richard Reed Parry 4:19
D1 England 5:40
D2 Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
Harmony Vocals [Harmonies] – Justin Vernon 4:12
"High Violet" finds The National at a high point, poised to either find their way at last into the hearts and minds and stereos of Middle America, or to fall back--either into hipster obscurity in the bars and art galleries of Brooklyn, or hipster exile in the suburbs--and be mourned by their dedicated fans but unremembered by the public-at-large.
Ever since 2005's "Alligator" (or better yet, 2004's "Cherry Tree EP"), it's been clear to everyone who was actually paying attention that this is a band with the ambition, and more importantly, the skills to be the Next Big Thing. And yet they also have the canny hipster sense that it's unwise to look like you're actually trying. So this album finds them both writing anthemic choruses and mumbling them, crafting sharp tunes and sludging them up, and generally continuing to be infuriatingly fascinating.
The New York Times' recent glowing profile of the band--one could call it a puff piece, but this is a band that deserves puffing--alluded to the general critical sense that this is a band poised to make the musical equivalent of the Great American Novel. And while that's an accurate picture of their potential, it's still somewhat misleading. Their previous two works were like Bukowski set to music--they're edgy and darkly funny tales of urban alienation and angst and alcoholism, tremendously enjoyable, but still somewhat out of the mainstream.
Whereas "High Violet" is more like Updike, with married-with-child lead singer Matt Berninger as Rabbit Angstrom, and a little extra angst on the side. He's settling uneasily into domesticity and starting to care about the things most people care about, but he's also trembling with fear, seeing danger around every corner. He promises us it isn't "Rabbit, Run." ("I won't be no runaway, `cause I won't run" ends up being one of the best and most memorable choruses on the album.) But there's enough conflict and longing for oblivion that it obviously isn't "Rabbit at Rest", either.
Again, Berninger's observations seem more squarely aimed at the average American here than on previous works; "I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe" feels like a zeitgeist-capturing line if ever there was one, something that sounds equally apropos for Brooklyn or Brooklyn Park. And yet Berninger's unable, unwilling, and has no need to entirely shed the jaded urbanite persona he's revealed to us on previous albums. So all this leaves him with one foot still planted in white hipsterdom and another astride the white picket fence, and with no clear sense of whether he's coming or going. Whereas on "Boxer" he sang "Can I have a minute and not be nervous, and not think about my dick," here he's talking about how "we live on coffee and flowers, try not to wonder what the weather will be." He mentions hoisting his kid on his shoulders and giving him ice for his fevers, but also says, "I don't have the drugs to sort it out." Is he out of drugs? Is he off of drugs? Abstaining for the sake of the kid, the wife, himself? Or are there simply not enough varieties and quantities of drugs to give him peace of mind in such a complicated situation? Like all the best lyricists, he's written this in a way that it can be interpreted many ways, and mean many things to many people depending on which parts resonate with their own experiences.
Musically, the band's as tight as ever; they always remind me of a moonlit sea, dark and energetic, deep and intense, but with bright flashes and intricate details. They've sludged things up a bit at the end of the somewhat Springsteen-ian "Terrible Love," taking a page from their live act, where they've been doing a messy deconstruction of "About Today" as a staple closer for some time now, and "Little Faith" has wonderful low ominous strings that help make it perhaps the most brooding song they've ever written, which is really really saying something.
Still, all in all, it's of a piece with their previous works, which isn't exactly a bad thing. (The album as a whole has a solid, conventional arc to it, which isn't bad, but also isn't as daring as "Alligator," which put some of the most charging and driving songs at the end of the album--the musical equivalent of trying to end a relationship with a face-melting post-breakup late-night booty call.) It closes with relatively sedate songs, "England" and "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" which, one senses, are either the least exciting songs this band's written in a while, or the ones that just take the most listens to let their slow brilliance sink in.
It's perhaps fitting that they're ending things on a mellower note; again, the band seems like they're at least trying to settle down, to reverse the exodus so many of our generation made at the beginning of our twenties when we fled suburbs and responsibility, preferring the darkened streets and crowded bars of the city to any sort of domesticity. "We'll leave the silver city, `cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams," he says on "Conversation 16." But it's hard to tell whether he'll succeed, or whether he wants to; the same song finds him declaring that "I'm evil," one who wants "to believe in all the things you believe" but is nonetheless "a confident liar." "When I said what I said, I didn't mean anything," Berninger tells either his wife or himself or us, which obviously leaves one wondering about the sincerity of it all. Do they want to find a comfortable place in Middle America?
Do we want them to? Or is it just for show, something they're doing because they think it's what's expected of them? "I'll explain everything to the geeks," Berninger promises (which means I, for one, am definitely owed an explanation.) But since it's the last line on the album, the questions remain unanswered, the tension, unresolved. Still that tension is what brings us back to their albums again and again, and hearing new things each time; it's not answers, but the search for answers, that makes this band compelling.
The National - Terrible Love
The National - Terrible Love
@ High Violet Annex
The National - Little Faith
@ Bell House
Brilliant song and performance
The National - Conversation 16
Aaron and Bryce use some incredible effects on their guitars, coupled with amazing musicianship. and damn, that rhythm section is flawless. and Matt... oh boy, what a perfect band.