#23. The National – High Violet
When The National released Boxer back in 2007, I wasn’t really familiar with their music. I was familiar with what people had said about their music in the past, with their back-catalog drawing comparisons to Silver Jews and Wilco, leaving me disinterested in the prospect of yet another twangy, alt-country tinged indie band whose acclaim I likely wouldn’t be able to wrap my brain around.
So you can understand why “Fake Empire”, Boxer’s opening track, threw me for a loop: The brooding, triplet-against-quarter piano pulse giving way to Matt Berninger’s lush, effortless baritone; The thumping kickdrum betraying the time signature before a groove ripped out of The Twilight Singers’ songbook locks in, eventually getting peppered with a firing squad of saxophone. It was truly a captivating introduction, earning my full attention, which the rest of Boxer eventually, and unfortunately, lost.
High Violet had a bit more context when it came out this year, in part because I knew the kind of austere atmosphere I could now expect from the band, but also because the release garnered critical acclaim almost instantly. I approached it with a conscious effort of trying to set aside all accumulated hype, and to also use their previous album as a touchstone more than a blemish. With all that in mind, the album’s beginning was still a chore on first listen. And second. And really only recently have “Terrible Love” and “Sorrow” soaked in a bit. “Anyone’s Ghost” is nice enough, though the chorus outstays its welcome, and the chorus of “Little Faith” has sufficient pull, as Berninger laments “All our lonely kicks are getting harder to find”. In all, the opening set grows over time and certainly serves to set the stage for the record as a whole, even if it doesn’t steal the show.
Perhaps “Little Faith”, as a title, is The National’s message to the thus-far unimpressed. Just when I was ready to give up on High Violet, it showed real signs of getting better. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of an album this drastically backloaded. “Afraid of Everyone” opens with a haunting harmonium drone as Berninger confesses his anxieties and social paranoia within the framework of fatherhood, consumerism, and politics. He instinctively turns to self-medicate, only to find himself empty-handed, and thus, unable to cope and accepting defeat: “Little voices swallowing my soul…”. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” clamors to life with an explosive beat and gunshot snares, and despite an opening lyric of “Stand up straight at the foot of your love”, the song is no bootstrap pull-up motivator. Quite the contrary, Berninger bemoans the crushing weight of debt “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe… The floors are falling out from everybody I know.”
“Lemonworld” offers some of the band’s more wordy fair, but is ultimately rather lifeless and depressing in its own right, with Berninger trailing off listlessly into “doo doo doo”s in the chorus. The lull is brief, however, as “Runaway”, while still a low-key affair, is the first truly beautiful moment on the record. As the softly plucked acoustic guitar and sheets of airy ambience float the song along, Beringer deeply intones in time until, rather unexpectedly, he speaks up: “What makes you think I enjoy being led to the flood? We got another thing coming undone.” When the line comes back around, it’s quite cathartic. Resigned to the messiness, he continues, “We don’t bleed, when we don’t fight. Go ahead, throw your arms in the air tonight.” For anyone who has ever endured a period of routine conflict in a relationship (and I would assume most qualify), the song rings quite true.
“Conversation 16” employs a propulsive beat under cooled-out guitar, deep keys and airy vocals, evoking the image of driving through the city at night. The lyrics don’t stick much at first, there are some lines about the “silver city” and “silver girls”, and then— Wait. Did he just say “I was afraid I’d eat your brains”? Luckily, Berninger almost makes me forget that lyrical sore thumb, following it with a velvety, drawn-out croon of “‘Cause I’m evil”. But really, hang on, is this song about zombies, or what? I mean, you can’t just off-handedly mention eating brains and then move on. Can you?
“England” opens appropriately with a spacious, Coldplay-esque piano riff, returning to the gorgeous, ambient swoon established two songs earlier. The song keeps an even flow for four minutes, before building to a crescendo, charging ahead, a choir of voices chanting “Afraid of the house, stay the night with the sinners.
Afraid of the house, ‘cause they’re desperate to entertain”. And then, at long last, the album draws to a close with the stunning “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, a sweeping, swaying ballad, buoyed by a truly moving chorus, pristine vocal harmonies, and continuously stirring string swells. It’s a testament to how engulfing the song truly is that Berninger manages to sing the work “geeks” and make it sound romantic.
In the end, High Violet remains a puzzling record, as it’s highs are certainly enthralling, and it’s lows are never truly offensive, yet the sum of its inconsistencies seem to ultimately be greater than their individual impact. I find myself only craving a few of these songs, but totally content to let the rest of the record paint the background in the meantime. And maybe that’s it – maybe the real appeal of this record is its ability to augment the types of feelings addressed within, but in a cathartic and freeing way. Maybe you can’t reallyget High Violet without a certain emotional prerequisite, but once you do, it serves as the score to the film of your present melodrama. And really, that shouldn’t be any surprise, since, even with the album’s ups and downs and hits and misses, there’s one thing that never fluctuates: High Violet is consistently cinematic.