Friday, May 14, 2010

The National: High Violet, spectrum culture, go now

The National

High Violet

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: 4AD

Perhaps to no one's surprise, most of High Violet is exceedingly sad. It's there in Matt Berninger's worn-down-and-weary baritone and in the drums, strings, keyboards and horns that underscore these songs and it's as sure as hell in the singer's resigned and somber lyrics. High Violet arrives with great expectations and some mainstream media attention for the Brooklyn-based National, but if the group had any doubts about matching the quality of its previous release, Boxer, they needn't have worried; though the album is somewhat of a refinement of the National's style and not any kind of dramatic departure, it's still a remarkable record that confirms the group's place as one of indie's eminent bands.

In recent interviews, Berninger stated that the group intended to make a catchy, fun record. It didn't take. Instead, High Violet plays like a near-50-minute ode to overwhelming, crushing bleakness, with most tracks unraveling like someone teetering on the verge of a full-on mental collapse. It is an album of sustained tension, as many songs - "England," "Anyone's Ghost" and the rumbling opener "Terrible Love" - threaten to explode but uncomfortably recede instead. The album's instrumentals are more aggressive than those from Boxer, but the types of outbursts that made songs like "Abel," "Slipping Husband" and the snarling mean-streaked "Available" so explosively cathartic are largely more restrained here. There is a sense of distance and isolation to the record's most affecting songs; in "Little Faith," Berninger tells of someone who's "stuck in New York/ And the rain's coming down," while in "Terrible Love," he evasively declares that "it takes an ocean not to break." These sentiments likewise creep into "England," where the narrator finds himself in a Los Angeles cathedral, lamenting "you must be somewhere in London/ You must be loving your life in the rain," as well as in "Anyone's Ghost" and its setting of "Manhattan valleys of the dead." Elsewhere, "Sorrow," "Lemonworld," "Afraid of Everyone" and "Runaway" cross panic and nervousness with more phobias and anxieties than one person should have to endure.

Very little throughout the album suggests resolution: going home "to Ohio in a swarm of bees" doesn't help - hometowns forget their native sons - and chemicals or coastal jaunts don't calm the mind either. Although such preoccupations are nothing new for the National's lyricist and earlier songs like "Watching You Well," "Patterns of Fairytales," "Daughters of the Soho Riots" and "Slow Show" all hit on similar themes, the writing is strong enough for listeners to forgive any redundancy with these older songs. There are some traces of dark humor ("I'll have my head in the oven so you'll know where I'll be") as well as hints of contentment or, at least, acceptance - "It's all been forgiven," Berninger sings on album closer "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks -" but such statements feel fleeting at best and are dwarfed by the album's predominantly mournful tone.

While Boxer casts its shadow over several songs - "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "Runaway" wouldn't sound out of place there - High Violet is not the work of a band stuck in place. It brings with it a level of seriousness, maturity and honesty sometimes lacking from other indie bands' efforts. It speaks to anonymous internal struggles in a massive, indifferent world and our own muted responses in the face of such adversity, and does this without resorting to melodrama or cheap, bombastic, big-riff resolutions. It's debatable as to whether High Violet represents the National's best work to date - such arguments are exhausting anyway - but there is unarguably a gravity to both Berninger's voice and the band's musical sensibilities that carry the album. It's this combination that makes these songs so visceral and emotionally impacting.

No comments: