I was initially a little disappointed with The National’s latest, High Violet. And, as these sorts of things go with people who feel their opinions are more valid than others, that disappointment turned into resentment when I appeared to be the only person who felt let down. Glowing review after glowing review streamed in, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was about High Violet that was getting everyone all worked up. Sure, it was evidently well crafted, much like Boxer. In fact, it seemed to be exactly like Boxer: brooding, elegant, gorgeous post-punk. And we have Boxer. What did High Violet provide that wasn’t already available in The National’s catalogue?
Well, I’ve changed my tune for a couple of reasons. For starters, I love Boxer, and if The National want to rely on a proven formula at a time when their star is clearly rising, then who am I to complain when the results sound this lovely? Secondly, there are notable differences between Boxer and High Violet, but they take more than a couple of casual listens to suss out. By conventional standards, The National were never spare, but High Violet finds them subtly ramping up the lushness that made their previous albums such warm listening experiences. Those eminently engaging sonics provide a perfect counterbalance to some truly spooky vocal performances from Matt Berninger.
Of course, when I say spooky, I don’t mean to imply that Berninger is moving in on Nick Cave’s terrain or anything, but The National have never sounded this ghostly for such an extended stretch of an album. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is probably the first song on High Violet that doesn’t reek of paranoia and internalized despair, and it takes a good five tracks of frayed nerves to get there. From there, you need to wait for “England” (the second to last track) to get anything remotely gregarious out of these sad bastards.
But when this kind of uneasiness is so exquisitely and carefully rendered, who can complain? “Terrible Love” opens the album apprehensively, with churning noise overwhelming the band’s understated melodies and pianos. The inevitable climax is reached after a gradual swell, only to be cut off abruptly. It’s a perfect introduction to High Violet’s dysfunctional beauty.
At this point, The National set off on a tear of hard-driving melancholia, all of which appears to be thoroughly fussed over. Every moment displays a finicky attention to detail, giving credence to the notion that The National are uncommonly cautious in the studio. All the better for the audience, as that judiciousness highlights just how vital each member is. The Dessner brothers and Scott Devendorf, as ever, compose some of the more darkly graceful chord progressions in modern rock, exactly what’s needed to compliment Berninger’s smoky vocals. And, of course, there’s no drummer as simultaneously controlled and creative as Bryan Devendorf, who adds considerable punch and precision to the shadowy worlds of “Little Faith” and “Lemonworld”.
So yeah, it should be pretty obvious how completely I’ve come around to High Violet. The National’s command over their craft is on full display here, whether they stick to their comfort zone (“Anyone’s Ghost”) or attempt something grander than they’re used to (“England”). Come to think of it, this isn’t really a band that should radically invent itself. They do what they do and they do it better than any other band going. At this point, there’s little to fix.