The National are what I like to call a “tapeworm” band. Tapeworms start out innocently enough, and you may accidentally ingest one through some piece of improperly treated food. What follows from there is the slow and steady build of a hunger that is seemingly never satisfied. One day you’re eating normally, and the next you’ve shoved three times the normal amount of food into your body and are somehow still craving more. That tapeworm will kill you if you don’t go to the doctor and get properly diagnosed. The National will certainly not kill you if you feed them, but in this analogy their music becomes that slow burn addiction that you can’t seem to get enough of. I first fell victim to this blessing/curse in 2005, when the band’s “Alligator” album showed up on my doorstep. At first, I didn’t give it much regard, finding the band’s somewhat somber songs a little boring and without much payoff. After a handful of listens I still didn’t get it and put the CD on a shelf while I dove into some other new and potentially great music. Fast forward to 6 months later, at which point a friend of mine whose musical opinions I highly respect told me that “Alligator” was a jaw-droppingly great record. It prompted me to pull the album off the shelf where I had left it and give it another try. It took another few times through, but after that, I was hooked like an addict to a drug of choice. I learned every lyric and sang along with every single song. It’s something I still do from time to time.
When “Boxer” came out in 2007, I was salivating with anticipation wondering if it’d be nearly as good as “Alligator” was. Again, I was disappointed. There weren’t any songs on “Boxer” that could match up to the highlights of songs like “Lit Up” and “Abel” and “Mr. November”, and my thinking was that it was a step backwards for the band. This was the snap judgment I made after a half-dozen or so listens. My review of the record at the time echoed that disappointment while remaining what I thought was exceptionally kind towards the band. Fast forward again another 6 months and listening to “Boxer” was nearly a daily event for me as I once again picked up all the lyrics and was singing along with every song. That December it wound up in my Top 5 albums of the year. With The National’s new album “High Violet” coming out today, I’ll now preface it by saying that I still listen to both “Alligator” and “Boxer” on a regular basis, and that’s more than I can say about almost any other band. Both records mean so very much to me, and yet again I’ve been aching with anticipation. As I’m writing this, I’ve listened to the album a half-dozen times.
Now that I’ve recounted my intense history with the last couple National albums, you should have some idea where I’m going to stand in relation to “High Violet”. Learning from my past mistakes, this review isn’t going to say a whole lot worthwhile except to recommend that you give the album awhile to win you over. From all indications, this looks to be another incredible notch in The National’s already strong belt of records, and while I’m still waiting for the obsession to kick in, the first thing I noticed was that “High Violet” didn’t turn me off initially as much as “Alligator” and “Boxer” first did. Of course I’ve also learned my lesson by now and am extremely familiar with what to expect from this band. If I have one gripe about The National, it’s that they have become just a little predictable in terms of their sound, not taking enough sonic risks. You’ve got your slow songs, a string section here, a brass section there, nonsensical lyrics, and anchoring it all is Matt Berninger’s seductive baritone. Ah, but that’s breaking it down into its crudest and simplest form, ignoring the end result, which are songs that though they often wind up sad and depressing, contain a surprising amount of beauty and compassion.
My favorite thing about “High Violet” at this point in time is how delicately crafted it sounds. Every note sounds austere, and when you have friends like Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon assisting you with compositions, that’s the sort of results you get. In many ways it’s a refining of the sound from their last two albums, not so much moving forwards as it is enriching what’s already there. This is especially apparent in the second half of the record, where songs like “England” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” are dramatically orchestrated , probably more than anything they’ve done previously. The sound is also largely built around Matt Berninger’s voice, which is so smooth and distinctive that coupling it with the darker tones of the instrumentals is like the meeting of Jack Daniels and Coke. And one of my absolute favorite things to do with any National album is to dissect the lyrics, because Berninger chooses such interesting words to string together. There’s typically no sense in trying to find any meaning in these songs, but there are themes and ideas you can sniff out through the careful examination of some phrases. “Sorrow” takes the titular emotion and personifies it to display how it permeates our lives. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is at least in part about the financial problems most of us face on a daily basis, while “Lemonworld” goes on the offensive against high society. What “Conversation 16” is about is still somewhat lost on me, though my interpretation is that it’s a song from the perspective of a man worried about his own sanity in a relationship with a girl he clearly cares for. Either way, it’s probably my favorite track on the album so far. Really what’s most interesting to me when talking about the lyrics on not just “High Violet” but any National album, is that despite the challenges of trying to understand these strung together phrases, once you learn all the words, they SEEM like they suddenly make sense. Matt Berninger has gone on record saying that he writes these songs piece by piece, scribbling down words and phrases that he finds interesting, then pasting them together in whatever order he feels works best. That may be a foolish way of doing it, but honestly I find Berninger’s lyrics to be among the best that modern songwriting has to offer, sensible or not.
It should go without question that I am recommending “High Violet”. I’m still very much digesting this album, and it’ll probably be another few months before it fully sinks in as to exactly how good it is to me, but at the very least after a few listens I can confirm that The National continue to make compelling and gorgeous music, even if it is undeniably sad. In other words, nice job boys, keep up the great work. As this band’s popularity continues to increase with each record and people discover the power of this music, I want to encourage people listening to this band for the first time to hold steadfast and not give up on them if you don’t like what you hear right away. Give it some time, hopefully you don’t think the album is too painful to listen to a bunch of times, and I can almost promise you there will be rewards after a little while. That said, don’t be surprised if “High Violet” makes an extremely strong appearance among my favorite records of 2010. No promises, but this band tends to do it for me, and if you let them, hopefully they’ll do the same for you as well.