Thursday, August 26, 2010

The National- High Violet

Much like The Walkmen, The National are a band who never elicited much interest in me based purely on reviews and word of mouth. In this era of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, I've developed something of a mental block against bands who have a timeworn, classicist sound that can't reliably be labelled anything other than rock or indie rock. There's something...plain and uninteresting about them, or so my logic goes. And then I actually listen to them and end up loving them. It may have taken until 2010 for me to get around to The National, but they jumped to the top of my long, long list of bands to explore in further detail. High Violet is simply that good, though you may have to take my recommendation on faith.

That's because on first listen, much of High Violet passes by without making an impression. It feels like eleven versions of the same idea, with a seemingly limited palette of sounds and tempos further compounding the problem. Sticking with the album, however, soon overturns these notions. What hooked me, and what has continually kept me coming back, is the album's sheer sense of craftsmanship and songwriting consistency. The National's last album came out in 2007, and while they didn't spend that entire span of time working on High Violet, you'd believe it if someone told you they had. This is an album that was labored over, every element of sound molded until it was just right. The lyrics brim with interesting, sometimes abstract imagery, avoiding cliché and obvious sentiment but still connecting with the listener.

On High Violet, The National sound like the result of an experiment to combine the emotional resonance and cresting majesties of, say, Arcade Fire with the chilly, atmospheric production of the first Interpol album. 'Anyone's Ghost' could pass for a Turn On The Bright Lights outtake, with its up-front post-punk bass and lyrics about going out at night with headphones on, Matt Berninger's airy baritone aimed as much at his feet as it is the microphone. Album closer 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks', meanwhile, bears the lonesome high melodies and surprisingly solid hooks of a lost Bon Iver track (he may be doing the backing vocals for all I know, since he guests on the album).

The songs of High Violet have an orchestral and cinematic underpinning that feels like a natural development from The National's last album, Boxer. 'Runaway', in fact, is begging to be used in a movie during the post-break up montage sequence of a 20-something romantic lead. This is also a nocturnal album through and through, but more in a “I can't sleep because I've got a lot on my mind” way than a creepy, brooding way. Which is why Massive Attack'sMezzanine and The xx's self titled album kept coming to my mind while listening to High Violet. They all share a certain atmosphere and vibe that goes well with those nights where you can't sleep because of something (or someone) that's on your mind. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to picture Massive Attack's take on the aptly named 'Sorrow', a dour lament about lost love. But no, these songs belong to The National. It's hard to imagine anyone else delivering the stunning middle three songs of this album, 'Afraid Of Everyone', 'Bloodbuzz Ohio', and 'Lemonworld', or the sounds-weird-in-concept-but-is-nowhere-near-that-morose 'Conversation 16', with its dream-like lyrics that somehow encompass romance, zombies, and suicide.

High Violet is not the most immediate, flashy, revolutionary, or controversial release, but it doesn't want to be. Instead it's just a damn fine piece of music, one that may not instantly win you over, but—you'll have to take my word for it—one that is also worth the time and effort to enjoy.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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