“High Violet” – ‘The National’ [Joint Review]
Thought I’d pump out this review before we totally forget about it – despite being ‘old-hat’, as my counterpart mentioned some weeks [perhaps even a month?] ago – “High Violet” should make a comfortable addition to any music collection. With the blog traveling smoothly, albeit gradual, it seems our focus intermittently tends to sway back and forth between other pressing concerns of late. So what can I say to explain my absence? Absolutely nothing – laziness predominantly, but this is nothing out of the usual. Self-doubt, even: yes, yes, underline this one. When the going gets tough, I go and hide under a rock.
“… And the rock cried out: ‘No hiding place!”
You quote-junkies will have to figure that one out for yourselves. So before I get off onto rambling:
A Brooklyn-based indie/alternative/rock band from America, ‘The National’ return after their initial self-titled debut back in 2001 with “High Violet”, a well-thought, well-strung album that smacks of maturity and dispels any notions of neglect. Released a little earlier this year in May, we both happened to stumble across this album separately, coming to the same conclusion when I happened to mention offhandedly to Michael Hodder that he should take a look at them – thus the birth this Joint Review scenario. He’d beaten me to them…
I cannot say that I have had any experience prior with ‘The National’, I’ve got no context to go on relating to any prior albums. So for all I know, this could simply be run-of-the-mill ‘The National’. Although I haven’t got a comparison to go on for newcomers, I would still strongly recommend a follow-up for any skeptics or hesitant-readers, it’s definitely worthwhile. I have approached albums like this in the past from artists I have never heard of and dealt with the situation in the same manner as I intend to now: band-context is fantastic for a fan evaluating a follow-up album, but most of the time this isn’t the case. Say, for example, ‘Midnight Juggernauts’ and “The Crystal Axis” – where I was sourly disappointed with their return. Mostly, Highly Evolved is looking for up-and-coming talent while keeping tabs on the talent we found earlier when they return in a year or two. If this isn’t the case, I just have to go with the flow and make do with what I have and what I hear. I simply couldn’t put aside “High Violet” because it was some of the best music I’ve heard all year; nevertheless, that mightn’t be saying much. The crop of late just hasn’t been up to standard…
With that said, ‘The National’ have an atypical alt-rock perspective augmented by a baritone-orientated lead-singer, ‘Matt Berninger’, who is also responsible for its lyrics. This is emphasised by the two pairs of brothers, ‘Aaron Dessner’ / ‘Bryce Dessner’, and ‘Scot Devondorf’ / ‘Bryan Devondorf’. While you can expect the usual sounds of guitar, bass and percussion, the lyrics and their vocalisation in particular, are what I feel to be the most dominating aspects, if not the sole driving force, behind ‘The National’ itself. It is what attracted me in the first place – occasionally dispensing with the sing-song quality in favour of a musically-expressed narrative or story. This, together with a pessimistically-infused chorus just makes things dandy!
Eleven tracks in total, averaging around the three-four minute mark, leaves each song thoroughly expressed and explored. With the album floating about fifty-minutes or so, sometimes it feels like it’s over before it’s really begun – by “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, you’ll be wanting more. Overall, despite this, a well-rounded time-frame. I would have liked an extra ten-minutes, but with each track leveled at above-average or so, more often than not, “High Violet” delivers and is always on the borderline, if not on the mark, of absolutely epic. While I cannot say with firm conviction that every track delivers astounding results, even the fillers are somewhat enjoyable – the final two contending tracks are magnificent finales.
Opening for “High Violet” is “Terrible Love”, and though I won’t go as far as to say its title is justifiably correct, I do not wish to sing it praises, for it remains one of the weaker tracks. As a gentle introduction, in between its chorus’ is where the track peaks to build somewhat enjoyable crescendos. “Sorrow” follows on from this, with the lyrics:
“… Sorrow found me when I was young.
Sorrow waited, sorrow won.
Sorrow, they put me on the pill
It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk*”
I think I understand the reasoning behind putting “Terrible Love” ahead of “Sorrow” – probably because of its lyrical orientation. I absolutely love them, but they are a blunt introduction to the track, and would be an even blunter introduction to the beginning of the album. I love the darkness – don’t get me wrong – but optimism is for pop. This is grown-up music. They strike me as particularly well-written, they flow wonderfully and tell an elegant story literally wrapped up in sorrow. An apt title for an apt song.
While “Anyone’s Ghost” is similarly interesting, I want to jump down all the way to “Afraid Of Everyone” skipping “Little Faith” [which is an excellent example of a filler, mind you]. Another excellent example of lyrics, pessimism and simplicity. ‘The National’ use music as a back-up, a building block for magnifying emotion already laden in the lyrics. In this sense, while solos are rare – there won’t be a break-out of wild-guitar or an explosion of percussion – their sound is instead focused on reinforcement. Everything is working in harmony, everything is where it should be, where it has a purpose or a necessity and I feel nothing is tacked on just for the hell of it.
Tracks like “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, “Lemonworld”, “Runaway” and “Conversation 16”, which follow on, are interesting in themselves, but won’t really be accepted from a first play-through, I think – they are fillers in a way, yet maintain some likable attributes in lyric or song. The contending final tracks “England” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” aren’t diametrical opposites, but resonate so well with each other that I cannot decide if they are inappropriately placed or not. While I originally liked “England” and wanted it to be last instead, “Vanderlyle…” is its equal and has since grown on me. I am not one for waiting, so it is uncommon for an album to grow on me unless I play it enough. I have been listening to “High Violet” for over a month – still not done listening.
… But, I think I’ll leave something for the imagination. Great, solid album. Lyric-lovers will be thoroughly pleased, music-lovers shouldn’t be disappointed – if this isn’t run-of-the-mill for fans, then they should be just as keen. Newcomers, maybe I should redirect you to where it all began? I myself haven’t been down that path just yet, but it might be worth our whiles, eh?
Reviewers Pick: “Sorrow”
Stand-out Tracks: “Sorrow”, “Anybody’s Ghost”, “Afraid Of Everyone”, “England”, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”
The Enantiomorphic God.