Critical Voices: The National, High Violet

April 29, 2010

I don’t envy what The National had to do on High Violet, its newest release.

After struggling through years of anonymity, the mainstream success of Boxer and Alligator anointed the band as the voice of the brooding everyman. To their fans, The National isn’t about creating individual songs—each track serves to build upon the previous one, transcending definite meaning to create a unified album.  They create the kind of abstract feeling that you only have when you’re young, anguished, and confused.

Phew, that’s a lot to accomplish. But amazingly enough, High Violet is more than a worthy successor to The National’s past work—it’s their best yet.

The album opens with “Terrible Love,” a track that builds from lead singer Matt Berninger’s trademark baritone mumblings into a noisy, guitar- and percussion-filled ode that decries separation. The track’s lyrics (“It takes an ocean not to break/This quiet company,”) suggest the sense of struggle theme that persists throughout High Violet: How can a person hold onto the past, present, and future simultaneously?

Fittingly, The National doesn’t seem to know how to answer its own question. Instead, the band creates unease and confusion on “Lemonworld,” one of the highlights of High Violet’s second half. As Berninger spouts nonsense (“I’m too tired to drive anyway/Anyway, right now, to care if I stay”), keyboardist Aaron Dessner and his twin-brother, guitarist Bryce Dessner, jump in and out of the melody to subtly throw “Lemonworld” into rhythmic disarray.

But, “Lemonworld” only succeeds because of the album’s centerpiece, “Bloodbuzz, Ohio.” On the track, which helps to ground the album, High Violet shifts again—this time almost imperceptibly—towards an intense sound without abandoning Berninger’s cool restraint. Tying it all together are the lyrics on “Bloodbuzz,” which crystallize the album’s theme. When Berninger sings, “I never thought about love when I thought about home,” his frustration and loneliness hit the listener hard and linger for hours.

The National may not offer any solutions regarding youthful angst, but High Violet approaches the subject with such honesty, both lyrical and musical, that it hardly matters.

Voice’s Choices: “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” “Lemonworld,” “Runaway”

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