Release Date: May 11, 2010
Record label: 4AD
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
You don’t really need me to tell you that The National’s High Violet is one of the year’s most feverishly anticipated records, nor do you need it rehashed how 2005’s Alligator and 2007’s Boxer revealed their charms gradually, seeping into listeners’ headphones and their hearts long after receiving initial spins. The enduring quality of the New Yorkers’ previous long-players means that whether they like it or not, High Violet comes burdened with heavy expectation. It doesn’t just have to be a good album, it must be a brilliant one; it can’t just be better than what it follows, it needs to be an outright modern classic.
I didn’t connect with The National’s 2007 breakthrough Boxer at the first time of asking. It wasn’t until I revisited the album after its strong showing in our Top 50 Albums of 2007 feature that I began to understand what a landmark achievement it was. Listening to Boxer now, as I still do on pretty much a monthly basis, I’m struck by how expertly judged it all is.
Brooklyn quintet the National has found a balance on their fifth album, High Violet, that acts like Interpol and Editors have yet to find: a confident, seamless integration of much-too-obvious influences into their own distinctive sound. The loving nods to Springsteen and Joy Division remain—vocalist Matt Berninger’s half-slurred, warm baritone on “Anyone’s Ghost” simultaneously conjures up the Boss and Ian Curtis—but are far less fumbling or mechanical than on 2007’s monotonous Boxer. Much of that change is owed to the beauty of Berninger’s emerging sensitivity, where the eyebrow-raised, deadpan wisecracking of Boxer‘s “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Fake Empire” is replaced by dark self-deprecation.
The National’s superlative fifth album, High Violet, is arriving at just the right moment. After starting out as a gloomy mood-rock quintet in 2001, the National has morphed into a so-called “big tent” indie-rock band that can pull in everyone from the coolest Williamsburg denizens to beer-swilling loners in the Midwest. Unlike just about every rock band that got big after modest blog-fueled fame, the National (whose members grew up in Cincinnati but now live in Brooklyn) haven’t grown by going broad; they’ve gotten markedly better with each release.
When did The National become one of the defining indie rock acts of the decade? Only a few years ago, they were a band of morose Midwesterners, singing in code to a marginal audience. Their early albums were proudly middle-brow, perched between meat-and-potatoes populism and art-school pretension. Sometime during the 10 years since their first album, a reappraisal occurred, a retconning that suddenly placed them as one of the most respected and fervently loved indie bands of the last decade.
The National became popular in a very traditional way: by releasing some really good albums, then touring the hell out of them. They're boilerplate indie, free of hot new genre tags or feature-ready backstories, which is something their detractors derive great joy from pointing out. If the National are important, rather than merely good, it's for writing about the type of lived-in moments that rock bands usually don't write about that well.
Brooklyn rock outfit admirably follows up its own masterwork If MGMT colors its musical canvas with fluorescent candy-scented magic markers, and Coldplay favors the niceness of pastel watercolors, The National’s output resembles a painstaking charcoal sketch with dramatic interplay between light and shadow. The five-piece’s cerebral rock ’n’ roll makes no apologies for its bleak emotional tenor, and I still can’t listen to their 2007 masterpiece Boxer without imagining myself slouching down the midwinter streets of Manhattan alone at 3 a. m.
The National's Matt Berninger is a fantastic lyricist, as we discover on the Brooklyn fivesome's fifth record. Delivered in his sombre baritone are stories of long-distance separation, father/son fears and life as a ghost in a city so sorrowful that even his milk and honey are contaminated. [rssbreak] Building on 2007's Boxer, High Violet should keep the melancholic band's aging indie fans crying into the future.
One of the signs of a great band is that their weaknesses, while just as present as in their less satisfying contemporaries, still kind of work for them. It’s true that most song lyrics lie rather flat on the page, but if I told you that one of the things I want to praise about High Violet was the lyrics and then quoted “It’s a terrible love and I’m walkin’ with spiders” or “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees” or “I had a hole in the middle where the lightning went through”, would you believe me? And yet, while I can’t really argue that those examples don’t read as a little silly, in practice they’re not just acceptable; they’re evocative, even moving. It’s not just Matt Berninger’s rumpled baritone that sells those lines.
Like an American Elbow, the National have taken over a decade and several albums to bring their mournful, elegiac anthems to a point where High Violet is the magnum opus that will make them stars. Crafted from humming guitars, tinkling pianos, militaristic drumming and occasional orchestration, their fifth album is beautifully subtle and grows in power with each listen. There's nothing so obvious as a rocker, but a selection of understated, troubled anthems hinge on Matt Berninger's mournful baritone and wonderfully diverse lyrics.
The National are masters of a baroque and somber indie-rock subgenre — call it Hopeless Majestic — defined by dirgelike guitars and elegiac imagery. Their fifth album High Violet is slow to blossom; its sumptuous layers and stately pace can feel almost funereal, and frontman Matt Berninger often sounds badly in need of Paxil. But Violet eventually burrows in, and stays.
The National is in danger of becoming another Spoon. Spoon is excellent, of course, and this is the kind of designation most bands would kill for, but the risk here is that by continually making solid records and not risking falling on their faces, the albums don't transcend; without risk, where's the thrill? .
The National have worn a lot of hats since their 2001 debut, but they’ve never been able to shake the rural, book-smart, quiet malevolence of the Midwest. The Brooklyn-groomed, Ohio-bred indie rock quintet’s fifth full-length album navigates that lonely dirt road where swagger meets desperation like a seasoned tour guide, and while it may take a few songs to get going, there are treasures to be found for patient passengers. The National's profile rose considerably after 2007’s critically acclaimed The Boxer, and they have used that capital to craft a flawed gem of a record that highlights their strengths and weaknesses with copious amounts of red ink.
On closing song, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” Matt Berninger sings about moving out and getting on with your life and how it’s the “same small world, at your heels. ” It documents how The National’s fifth album, High Violet, isn’t so much about the progress we’re making but more about coping with your feelings and desires and trying to figure all of them out. For the New York band, originally from Ohio, everything has always been about blurring the lines between the right and wrong, between what we think is good and what is really bad and they’ve done so with an amazing amount of musicianship.
The New Yorkers’ finest disc to date is a potential album of the year. Mike Diver 2010 Brooklyn’s The National are the absolute antithesis of an overnight success. Together for over a decade, the group’s slow ascent to international acclaim has been emotional. While several critics have clicked with albums of swollen heart and bruised soul, a handful have mistaken deliberate, delectable languor for dismissible listlessness.
Marking its third stellar offering, following 2005 breakout Alligator and 2007's Boxer, the National's fifth album continues to perfect misery as an aesthetic achievement. Now a decade in, the Brooklyn brooders have come to serve as antithesis to the hipster clichés of their borough counterparts, the quintet's Midwest roots grounding songs in stoic, stark reality. High Violet's melancholy is familiar territory for the National, but they've impressively aged and settled into their gloom without becoming caricatures of angst.