Album Review: The National’s "High Violet"

How often do you listen to a band that conjures up genuinely extreme emotions for you? The National has done it for me, and for years now. “Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers,” an album filled with infidelity, middle-class male ennui, and (of course) lost love and how to (unsuccessfully) deal with it, was my first experience with The National; I was drawn to the album, ironically as that sounds coming from a lover of the loud crescendos of Mono’s orchestrated wall of noise sounds; the earsplitting, nine-string pounding of High on Fire’s mystically driven subject matter; and the down home, monochromatically hyperbolic simplicity of The Black Keys. I followed The National, later picking up the superb “Alligator,” then a consistent “Boxer,” then reaching backwards into their discography to enjoy their S/T debut LP. Now, with their newest “High Violet,” Matt Beringer and company have again laid down a dark and tangibly melancholic record that reels its listeners in over repeated listens.

“High Violet” stands poised to break The National wide open though (if the media coverage doesn’t), as they have gained more and more success over the years, something I find ironic considering their being rooted in the Indie scene, yet some say that they are poised for stadium rock success (I’d be displeased if this were to occur, but if it did I wouldn’t lose any enjoyment from listening to their records.). What really shines on this record, though, is the fabulous mix of lyrical content with perfectly restrained and balanced musical composition. For The National, the world is inherently tribulation, constant and inevitable pain and heartache only momentarily quelled by brief moments of epiphany and remembered dreams rising evanescently over the roar of middle-class static.

One of my favorite tracks on the album, “Afraid of Everyone,” opens with ethereal strings, then Matt’s vocals come in matching the music’s lightness, as he says over and over “I’m afraid of everyone/with my kid on my shoulders I try/I try not to hurt anybody I like.” Every single time I hear this song I want to shake my fist in the air and say, damn that’s some poetic song writing. What in the heck is Matt singing about, you might ask. Is the poor guy just a father with agoraphobia exhibiting some minor violent tendencies? Nah. This song sets the tone for this album. It provides an understanding for how the alienation of modern life and its accouterments affects the speaker, and everyone in general. Matt associates lack of identity with being in the public eye: being on the radio and television, two things that provide methods that expose the speaker to an uncomfortably unnatural level. The songs becomes even more powerful when the speaker insists that no drugs are available to “sort out” the horrors of laying dead “blue bodies,” to quash the fear “of everyone,” or to abstain from hurting “anybody I like.” As the song “Runaway” notes as well, the speaker must face these horrors without having the ability to turn his head with the aid of drugs. Yet, the song leaves me perplexed. I can’t figure out the last line: “Your voice has stolen my soul, soul, soul.” Where do I place this song within the content that the song has been covering until the end? Does the speaker find solace that the drugs can’t provide in the inspiration of someone? Or, as simplistic and cliché as it may be, does the speaker gain strength in the face of his fears from the love of someone else? Maybe I’ve got the song all wrong, and the speaker simply is afraid of showing his soul to someone who has apparently already stolen it. I may never figure it out, but it’s still interesting to perplex on this closing line.

I guess it’s safe to say that The National’s “High Violet” could be classified as a popular rock album, and I hope in the most un-pejorative sense of the word (and unlike many twenty-first century popular rock albums which respond to the horrors of 9/11 or the influx of the alienating effects of technology, commercialism, and the like) The National still focus their razor sharp songwriting at the peaks and valleys of our day-to-day worlds. “High Violet” speaks to a shared humanity that is overlooked by many neatly packaged albums I’ve listened to so far this year, and because I hear this shared humanity, I feel a greater pull in The National’s art that won’t quickly disappear.

The National - High Violet

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