The National – High Violet
Standing out as one of the best albums of 2010 is High Violet, the fifth and newest album by the National. It’s a set of eleven stirring songs that smolder and ignite, held together by eddies and riptides that provide a rare sense of cohesiveness. It might be fair to say that this is an album that is absorbed rather than listened to.
Falling somewhere between a crooning Sinatra and Robert Smith, between a late and subtle Morrison & early Presley, singer Matt Berninger’s voice is a trippy barritone, with lower register melodies intense, clipped and dour enough to make Depeche Mode smile. Heart wrenching lyrics celebrate & embrace the pain and discomfort of sadness, staring headlong into that abyss, unflinching and willingly. It takes an ocean not to break, indeed.
You can chart the growth and success of this Brooklyn (by way of Cincinnati) band over the course of their ten-ish year existence, from music charts to reviews to copies sold. And High Violet is not the exception. The ability of the drummer to shake a slower, off time song, get mathy with it and subtly launch it into high gear provides a crackle and sizzle that doesn’t go unnoticed. Neither does the understatedly scraped fuzz and hum of an echoing electric guitar part, for that matter. The album is extremely evocative, a guy who has lost it all, at the end of his rope. The ability of the band to impeccably express this is impressive, particularly for a semi self produced record (Peter Katis assisted a bit).
A word I used earlier is smoldering, and I can’t find a more succinct description. There is utter beauty in these songs that build in dynamic layers, mixed from on high with a view of the song as a whole, pulsing through the push and pull of sixteenth note muted acoustic guitar string echoes, amplifying the hi-hat strikes, highlighting tension with the quarter notes of a piano melody. At any given moment, there is always a doom part, an instrument or sound that seems intent on raising the hairs on your arm, like a signal in a horror movie. There aren’t so much harmonies as hauntings, otherworldly breathings, uneasy whispers that combine with bass flutes and harmoniums and French horns that are arranged and mixed so well you have no choice but to absorb it.
There are too many highlights on this album to list here; the first single was Bloodbuzz Ohio, the second Anyone’s Ghost. I need to point out that the track Runaway was originally titled Karamazov, referencing Dostoevsky’s 800 plus page tome, immediately increasing the level of interest in the exegesis of the lyrics. This only serves to enhance that which is already on many levels a stellar album. It feels like it connects to so much more than music. High Violet compels you to follow the band into that darker part of human experience, that sadness that we can’t fix in others or ourselves, where paradoxically the only way to shake it is to fully experience it.