“We wanted to make a loud, fun record that would grab people immediately and move them, and not just on a surface level,” the National’s Matt Berninger told Drowned in Sound in a recent interview. Loud, maybe. Fun, not so much. Perhaps that was the band’s intent in the early stages of writing, before the Dessner twins handed some chord progressions over to Mr. Berninger to write to. I mean, I don’t know that Berninger would knowingly lie to us, but he seems to be a bit confused. “I live in a city sorrow built,” his wooden baritone cries on “Sorrow”, High Violet’s second track. At this point, we’ve already witnessed a “Terrible Love”, and now he’s singing about all the shitty things “Sorrow” did for him. Let me give you a hint: It doesn’t get much cheerier from here, and he’s just getting started. If this is his idea of fun, then I certainly do not want to be at his next birthday party. But, while Berninger may have a slightly different conception of what “fun” entails than the average human being, goddamn does the agony sound good.
Per usual, the album is filled with Berninger’s consistently captivating, dark narratives, mulling over the complexities of his most troubled relationships with the people around him and the places he’s lived; those cryptic stories that slowly unveil themselves with each listen. Whether it’s a twisting cogitation of monotonous marital turmoil (“Conversation 16”) or revelation of the unusual sensation that comes with a nag-induced return home (“Bloodbuzz Ohio”), Berninger’s tales of broken hearts and big-city isolation do little to hurt the case that he’s one of the finest lyricists out there today. As specific as his stories may be in regards to his own experiences, there’s something about their abstractness that keeps the doors wide open for interpretation and universality simultaneously. It’s the combination of his enticing metaphors and his emotionally exhausted, honey-drip delivery, the idea that you can feel what he’s singing, if nothing else. Even if you have no idea what he’s talking about specifically, you can understand the specifics of the emotion. There’s no necessary desire to look into the man’s personal life for answers, either, because the feeling is powerful enough for none of that to really matter. That’s what makes his words so entrancing.
A line like “Don’t leave my hyper heart alone/on the water/cover me in rag and bone/sympathy/‘cause I don’t want to get over you” hits every lovesick nerve with precision. When he belts out “I’ll set a fire just to see what it kills” we don’t need anything but the words he’s provided and the way that he’s provided them. The man can express the intricacies of human emotion with a near scientific accuracy. On High Violet, however, he takes less time unraveling those emotions, arriving at catchy hooks fairly quickly (no doubt, the immediacy he was referring to in the quote). In doing so, he only proves he can get the job done more efficiently without losing anything in the process.
Nonetheless, Berninger’s defeated words and painful delivery don’t really steer the record towards the fun he mentioned. It’s kind of a relief, though, the only issue being his misrepresentation of how High Violet sounds. After all, it wouldn’t really be a National album if it were a party. Despite the lack of confetti and cake (excluding a few lines that actually mention cake), the National most definitely invites some noise onto High Violet. From the first distorted chords of “Terrible Love”, there’s a bit of murky harshness that we haven’t really seen from this group since their beginnings. On first listen, it feels as if somebody took Boxer and scratched, splintered, and warped the tape. Bryan Devendorf’s stick work is as emphatically schizophrenic as ever (some of his patterns sound very familiar, but no complaints). But, this time they pound around some fuzzed out strums and crunchy licks amidst the brass and strings. That’s not to say that this thing could be a Dinosaur Jr. record, and there are some more delicate songs, but when you introduce anything like the looped distortion at the start of “Little Faith” into the National’s sound, it’s a little jarring. I never thought I’d mention Animal Collective’s Danse Manatee in a review of a National album, but that’s the kind of sound that opens up the track. Don’t expect black metal, but the guys have definitely invited some crassness amidst the eloquence they’re most known for. You’ll have one of those “huh?” moments on the first spin, but with each listen, the noise sounds more natural and even more appropriately placed.
Of course, at the center of slightly rougher edges, there’s still that fine attention to melody that makes the National so good at what they do. The rougher sounds only further accentuate the dudes’ melodic prowess. On a given song, behind a flurry of electrified strums will be just the right piano note, the perfect wave of warm strings, or an impeccably timed backing vocal.
As expected, these things build and drift behind Berninger’s deep, weighty, molasses delivery. Given Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s frequent forays in orchestral composition (Bryce is a founding member of classical-meets-rock group Clogs and both worked on the 12 piece orchestral composition, “The Long Count”) it makes sense that these songs have an almost classical feel to them. The songs’ intricate structures unfold piece by piece, with layers growing and branching off of one another left and right. The most notable of these sounds are the bright, ethereal vocal harmonies that creep in every so often (See “Sorrow”, “Afraid of Everyone”, and “Conversation 16”). There is definitely just a lot less open space, much of it stuffed with ambient vocals, rough chords, or pounding drum fills. The retro-radio, echo tinged vocals bring another cleverly placed ingredient into the mix. And each little element adds just more depth to an already dense sound. Perhaps some of this new found density has to do with the various guests who apply their talents to High Violet. It’s probably not a coincidence that some songs almost have a Boxer meets For Emma, Forever Ago feel, as Vernon lends help, specifically to “Conversation 16”. Maybe more of a coincidence that “England” begins nearly the same way that Sufjan Stevens’ “Concerning The UFO Sighting . . .” does, though Stevens also guests. Perhaps Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Perry is also a source of the record’s overall ambiance, as he’s on a majority of the tracks.
But given all of the elements that pile up on each track, nothing feels overdone in the slightest, mostly because everything is so nuanced. You wouldn’t know these guests were here if you didn’t look at the credits, for instance. Everything is executed with perfect subtlety. Like on Boxer, you won’t notice half of what’s being played until you’ve listened a few times. Though some melodies or lyrics are immediate, a lot lies underneath. With High Violet, The National argue with the saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They’ve taken some minor risks, tailored their sound, and emerged with a record that can stand confidently beside Boxer and Alligator, all without overdoing or losing any of its predecessors’ merits. It’s the kind of record that can reaffirm your belief in the consistent rock band. They’ve done it again, even if they took a while to get it done. After three years of waiting, The National is here to stay, thank god.