My first exposure to The National was “Abel,” found on a sampler of artists playing the 2006 Pitchfork Music Festival. At the time the buzzing guitar chords and thudding drumbeat seemed boring to me, but before I could skip to the next track on the sampler, Matt Berninger’s scream tore through my speakers: “Well my mind’s not right!/My mind’s not right!” A few listens later, the visceral power of that line continued to grip me: the energy, the honesty of it.
Later I would find that same compelling emotionality throughout Alligator, an album so subversively brilliant it went from lukewarm reviews upon release to placing on most best-of-the-decade lists five years later – and, more importantly, it earned the band an obsessively devoted following. The follow-up, 2007’s Boxer, breathed back the anguish and paranoia of Alligator, letting it simmer beneath layers of lush orchestration, while Berninger retreated into the lowest register of his smooth baritone. On High Violet, that bristling rawness that first excited me and many other fans has returned to the surface – not in screams, but in propulsive drums, ugly guitar strums, and soaring choruses.
One aspect of the band that has not changed is Berninger’s opaque lyrics – jumbled, nonlinear poetry grasping at truths you never knew were there. “It’s a terrible love/And I’m walking with spiders,” he moans as the album begins. This line, understood like the ridiculous imagery of our most meaningful dreams, says more than most bands get across in an album’s worth of lyrics: love is brittle and frightening and beautiful, obsessively all-consuming. The song is given true surreality by the orchestration: scuzzy guitars rumble against heavy piano hits and swirling world-is-ending drums.
The album continues this way, an exciting but deeply unsettling lucid dream. The National frame ordinary lives in extraordinary terms; they are mundane in their concerns but fantastic in their explanation. This world, where voices swallow souls, bodies are carried in swarms of bees, and lovers fear eating one another’s brains, is not so different from our own, if only we choose to admit it. But what grounds The National are those moments when the bizarre fades into the utterly human – on “Sorrow,” when Berninger breaks from a tale of milk and honey and girls in capes to declare, “I don’t wanna get over you,” and on “Conversation 16,” when he admits, amongst images of silver cities and silver girls, “You’d never believe the shitty thoughts I think.” This marriage between the real and surreal gives High Violet the stately beauty of a great novel: made up, but unmistakably true.
Sonically the album ebbs and flows, sometimes spacious (“Sorrow,” “Runaway”), sometimes claustrophobic (“Afraid of Everyone,” “Conversation 16”). Whatever the aesthetic choice, the arrangements are definitive: no instrumental flare or texture is superfluous, and though a mood of gloomy, hazy-eyed resilience permeates from beginning to end, no song even begins to sound like any other. True to the band’s style, the most pervasive emotions are self-doubt (“I wanna believe in everything you believe,”) guilt (“Cousins and cousins away overseas/But it’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me,”) and nervousness (“I still owe money/To the money/To the money I owe”). Berninger varies often the register in which he sings, giving the album a dynamic sound and lending greater power to those moments when he sinks into his lowest notes. The most marked shift from previous albums is a feeling of community; Berninger noted that since becoming a husband and a father, he feels less like an “I” and more like a “we.” Boxer often felt lonesome, but even High Violet’s loneliest, weightiest moments feel like shared sorrow.
From start to finish, this is a wrenchingly beautiful album. It combines the emotion of Alligator and lushness of Boxer and showcases newfound confidence and maturity. Time and again The National have proved they are a brilliant rock band – cerebral but unpretentious, consistent but diverse, and cohesive in a breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime sort of way. This album may well be a 10/10. But perfect albums are those that prove their worth listen after listen, year after year – so we’ll just have to wait and see.