Thursday, June 3, 2010

What We're Listening To: High Violet by the National

The National are a quintet of displaced Ohioans currently residing in Brooklyn.  They have an intimate, moody, tense sound, but they don't descend into lugubriousness.  Singer Matt Berninger's deep baritone has been compared to everyone from Leonard Cohen to Ian Curtis.  They have a little bit of a post-punk, Joy Division revival sound that was very cool in New York around the turn of the Millennium.  However, the National have a classic and refined approach to that sound.  They also know how to rock a good string arrangement.

I've been a big fan of the band since the their third album, Alligator, and their fourth album, Boxer, is one of my all time favorites.  Which is to say, that my expectations for this album were fairly high.  Because of their somewhat reserved rock sound, appreciation for their albums tend to build with repeated listenings.  I enjoyed High Violet the first time I listened to it, especially the single "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and catchy opener "Terrible Love."  But I liked the back half of the album more than the slower, restrained first half.  Songs like "Sorrow," Berninger's love song to the emotion, grow on you slowly.  That being said, High Violet has a bigger and more immediately accessible sound than Boxer, which is full of tension and mood with few hooks. 

Matt Berninger is an interesting lyricist.  Many of his songs tend to be about banal subjects: relationship tension, work troubles, money problems, etc.  He has a stream-of-consciousness flow which makes his lyrics sometimes very specific but also difficult to pinpoint exactly what he's talking about.  While Alligator and Boxer seemed more self-deprecating and inwardly focused, High Violet looks to the outside world more.   "Bloodbuzz Ohio" address the economy, "I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/ The floors are failing out from everybody I know."  Meanwhile, "Afraid of Everyone" appears to be about the increased polarization in politics, "Venom radio and venom televison/ I'm afraid of everybody, I'm afraid of everybody/ They're the young blue bodies/ With the old red bodies."  Berninger then goes on to describe how this increased political tension influences his role as a parent, "With my kid on my shoulders I try/ Not to hurt anybody I like/ But I don't have the drugs to sort/ I don't have the drugs to sort it out."  Throughout the album, Berninger plays with apocalyptic imagery including floods ("Little Faith"), swarms of bees ("Bloodbuzz Ohio"), and zombies (well, brain eating anyway, "Conversation 16"). 

High Violet is full of tense, anxious and somber moments, but it is not a drag. While talking about the track "Sorrow" in an interview with the Onion's A.V. Club, Berninger said, "Sadness is not always the worst feeling.  Sometimes it's a really pleasurable thing to be overwhelmed with sadness."  This statement could easily be about the album.  It's an enjoyable, catchy, and beautiful album filled with serious and dark moments.  You'll know if you're the kind of mopey person who likes this stuff.

Stand-out tracks:  I'm still head-over-heels for "Bloodbuzz Ohio."  Berninger is great at writing biting love songs, "Terrible Love" and "Sorrow" are certainly two good examples of that.  "Lemon World" oozes with middle class complacency and boredom.  Closing track "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" proves to be as awesome as the name and has beautiful orchestral work in it.

 Recommended for fans of: Midlake, Interpol, Joy Division, Tom Waits, Wilco, and Tindersticks.

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