on May 25, 2010
This album is one that I find myself only putting on when I am able to listen to the whole thing. I'm not going to say I didn't love Boxer or Alligator, but both of those albums have tracks that outshine the overall sound. High Violet is the exact opposite to me. The songs present work better together than broken apart. That's not to say that the songs can't stand on their own, but the overall effect that the album has as a single cohesive unit is absolutely jaw dropping.
"High Violet" finds The National at a high point, poised to either find their way at last into the hearts and minds and stereos of Middle America, or to fall back--either into hipster obscurity in the bars and art galleries of Brooklyn, or hipster exile in the suburbs--and be mourned by their dedicated fans but unremembered by the public-at-large.
Ever since 2005's "Alligator" (or better yet, 2004's "Cherry Tree EP"), it's been clear to everyone who was actually paying attention that this is a band with the ambition, and more importantly, the skills to be the Next Big Thing. And yet they also have the canny hipster sense that it's unwise to look like you're actually trying. So this album finds them both writing anthemic choruses and mumbling them, crafting sharp tunes and sludging them up, and generally continuing to be infuriatingly fascinating.
The New York Times' recent glowing profile of the band--one could call it a puff piece, but this is a band that deserves puffing--alluded to the general critical sense that this is a band poised to make the musical equivalent of the Great American Novel. And while that's an accurate picture of their potential, it's still somewhat misleading. Their previous two works were like Bukowski set to music--they're edgy and darkly funny tales of urban alienation and angst and alcoholism, tremendously enjoyable, but still somewhat out of the mainstream. Whereas "High Violet" is more like Updike, with married-with-child lead singer Matt Berninger as Rabbit Angstrom, and a little extra angst on the side. He's settling uneasily into domesticity and starting to care about the things most people care about, but he's also trembling with fear, seeing danger around every corner. He promises us it isn't "Rabbit, Run." ("I won't be no runaway, `cause I won't run" ends up being one of the best and most memorable choruses on the album.) But there's enough conflict and longing for oblivion that it obviously isn't "Rabbit at Rest", either.
Again, Berninger's observations seem more squarely aimed at the average American here than on previous works; "I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe" feels like a zeitgeist-capturing line if ever there was one, something that sounds equally apropos for Brooklyn or Brooklyn Park. And yet Berninger's unable, unwilling, and has no need to entirely shed the jaded urbanite persona he's revealed to us on previous albums. So all this leaves him with one foot still planted in white hipsterdom and another astride the white picket fence, and with no clear sense of whether he's coming or going. Whereas on "Boxer" he sang "Can I have a minute and not be nervous, and not think about my dick," here he's talking about how "we live on coffee and flowers, try not to wonder what the weather will be." He mentions hoisting his kid on his shoulders and giving him ice for his fevers, but also says, "I don't have the drugs to sort it out." Is he out of drugs? Is he off of drugs? Abstaining for the sake of the kid, the wife, himself? Or are there simply not enough varieties and quantities of drugs to give him peace of mind in such a complicated situation? Like all the best lyricists, he's written this in a way that it can be interpreted many ways, and mean many things to many people depending on which parts resonate with their own experiences.
Musically, the band's as tight as ever; they always remind me of a moonlit sea, dark and energetic, deep and intense, but with bright flashes and intricate details. They've sludged things up a bit at the end of the somewhat Springsteen-ian "Terrible Love," taking a page from their live act, where they've been doing a messy deconstruction of "About Today" as a staple closer for some time now, and "Little Faith" has wonderful low ominous strings that help make it perhaps the most brooding song they've ever written, which is really really saying something. Still, all in all, it's of a piece with their previous works, which isn't exactly a bad thing. (The album as a whole has a solid, conventional arc to it, which isn't bad, but also isn't as daring as "Alligator," which put some of the most charging and driving songs at the end of the album--the musical equivalent of trying to end a relationship with a face-melting post-breakup late-night booty call.) It closes with relatively sedate songs, "England" and "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" which, one senses, are either the least exciting songs this band's written in a while, or the ones that just take the most listens to let their slow brilliance sink in.
It's perhaps fitting that they're ending things on a mellower note; again, the band seems like they're at least trying to settle down, to reverse the exodus so many of our generation made at the beginning of our twenties when we fled suburbs and responsibility, preferring the darkened streets and crowded bars of the city to any sort of domesticity. "We'll leave the silver city, `cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams," he says on "Conversation 16." But it's hard to tell whether he'll succeed, or whether he wants to; the same song finds him declaring that "I'm evil," one who wants "to believe in all the things you believe" but is nonetheless "a confident liar." "When I said what I said, I didn't mean anything," Berninger tells either his wife or himself or us, which obviously leaves one wondering about the sincerity of it all. Do they want to find a comfortable place in Middle America? Do we want them to? Or is it just for show, something they're doing because they think it's what's expected of them? "I'll explain everything to the geeks," Berninger promises (which means I, for one, am definitely owed an explanation.) But since it's the last line on the album, the questions remain unanswered, the tension, unresolved. Still that tension is what brings us back to their albums again and again, and hearing new things each time; it's not answers, but the search for answers, that makes this band compelling.
on July 11, 2010
Before I decided to buy this cd, I'd never heard of the National. Indeed, at first, I thought that I had read that there were only two band members. The National is a Brooklyn-based indie rock band formed in Cincinnati [hence "Ohio Blood Buzz"] in 1999. The band's lyrics are written and sung by Matt Berninger, a very low-key, but precise baritone. The rest of the band is composed of two pairs of brothers: Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf. Aaron plays guitar, bass and piano, Bryce plays guitar, Scott plays bass and guitar, and Bryan is the drummer - and a very fine drummer he is, indeed. Padma Newsome, from another band often adds strings, keyboards, and other instrumental layering. The National has an acclaimed indy history, though, after listening to High Violet, I found nothing of its caliber in the older albums, though they are good. Nothing to indicate the radical departure the group has taken.
The debut album, the eponymous The National was released in 2001 on Brassland Records, a label founded by band members Aaron and Bryce Dessner, among others. The 12 songs were an array of country/bar room/pop. I particularly liked "Beautiful Head", for its delicate roots orientation.
The National's second album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, was released in 2003, and, like the previous album, was received favorably, though impact was not widespread.
In 2004, the band released an EP, Cherry Tree, which included the live favorite "About Today," as well as "All the Wine". The EP evoked further positive reaction, and its success landed them a successful tour.
Their 2005 album, Alligator, was met with much critical acclaim and featured highly in "Album of the Year" charts. Some reviews hailed it as one of the top records of the decade. Alligator sold over 80,000 copies.
The National's fourth album, Boxer, came out 2007, and critical acclaim grew. A number of TV shows (and some movies) began using The National music. The songs "Fake Empire" and "Start a War" were featured. Music videos and a full-length documentary on the band followed.
Word of what would become High Violet began to spread in 2008. The National performed live versions of "England," "Bloodbuzz Ohio," "Vanderlylle Cry Baby" (later retitled "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks"), "Terrible Love," "Conversation 16," "You and Your Sister" (later retitled "Lemonworld"), "Sorrow," "Anyone's Ghost," "Believe Me" (previously called "The Blue Sky" and "A Thousand Black Cities"), and "Karamazov" (a reference to Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, a band favorite), which was retitled on the album as "Runaway". Thus, the genesis of High Violet
High Violet is absolutely stunning. In my opinion it is far above the group's previous work, though I would definitely pick up copies of Boxer and Alligator. High Violet is far more, somehow, than the sum of its parts. At first listen, I loved the album, but I thought that it might be too much of a good thing, that it wouldn't last as I listened to it over time. I was wrong. The more I listen, the more I hear and the more the songs become part of me - if I had the voice, I could sing them. I can hear that thought and invention were put into virtually every second, and new details emerge continually over time. There is not a single weak song.
I would have written a review far sooner, but I have difficulty finding the words to describe this album. The music does not seem to stem from any of the main basic types of American music - it is not African-American, it is not country-western, it is not jazz, it is not tin pan alley/show tune.
It is sui generis. The music is very melodic, tempos running from ballad to not quite fast paced, thick with detail (especially on "Terrible Love", which on first listen on bad speakers seemed too thick, kludgy, but over time has revealed a very precise spare swirl of artistries), powerful and almost anthemic. I think that every member of the band must be first among equals, because everything comes together so terribly well. The lead singer's voice is highly expressive in a low, restrained way, except when it is bursting forth with a fine ringing baritone. The singer's voice and the album's themes unify it, but so does the music - at the end, it is one piece of music that happens to come in parts. Recurrent images - ocean, waves, sun, rain, souls, games, drugs, fire, New York, and flowers - create greater coherence, and, over all, even when highly emotional, the album is calm, restrained in a way that makes every detail carry greater weight.
Every single song is about pain and/or sadness - the second song is called "Sorrow." Yet, rather than being depressing, the album is cathartic; the songs are so powerful that, while they plumb the depths, they are also sustaining, and they are so thoughtful and perceptive (and funny) that they leave one pensive. The lyrics are allusive and elusive, like good poetry. They are lean and repeated, but somehow avoid being repetitive, perhaps because one really needs to think about them as they go by. Sometimes - no often - they make little literal sense, but they are just right in their contexts, creating emotional developments that give the words sense. "It takes an ocean not to break." What does that mean? Listen to it in the song "Terrible Love", and it will make sense. To me,anyway.
There is a very high number of memorable, if somewhat cryptic, lines. A few: "It's terrible love and I'm walking with spiders .../It's quiet company." "Sorrow found me when I was young/ Sorrow waited, sorrow won." "Awesome prince, get your sleep/ Lose your high history/ Make us laugh, or nothing will/ I set a fire just to see what it killed." "I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees/ I never married but Ohio don't remember me." "I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/ The floors are falling out from everybody I know." I gave my heart to the army/ The only sentimental thing I could think of." "What makes you think I enjoy being led to the flood/ We've got another thing comin' undone/ That's taking us over/ That's taking forever." [Who would ever imagine that this line/song refers to Dostoyevsky?] "Now we'll leave the silver city, 'cause all the silver girls/ Gave us black dreams/ Leave the silver city to all the silver girls/ Everything means everything." "I'm a confident liar/ I'll have my head in the oven so you'll know where I'll be." "Famous angels never come through England/ England gets the ones you never need." "All the very best of us/String ourselves up for love."
And the final line of the album: "I'll explain everything to the geeks." Actually, nothing is explained in the album, but then it shouldn't have been. High Violet is an album to let wash over you, like an ocean wave - powerful, unlike any other though repeated endlessly, having its own meaning, possibly dangerous, complex but simple. Yes.
on November 16, 2010
I love this disc, but it frustrates me that these guys have released an expaned edition of this disc so soon after its initial release. If they had this stuff ready before High Violet's release, why not release the expanded edition then? This is the kind of thing that alienates had core fans.
on February 23, 2012
First and foremost, I've got to say that I love The National and I love the songs on this record. That said, the record itself was a huge disappointment. The mastering is highly compressed. All dynamics and most of the instruments, aside from the traditional guitar/bass/drums are completely drowned in the mix.
It's really sad because it's obvious that there is a wide range of instrumentation used and a lot of nuance put into the music and for the most part. The finished product sounds completely flat. At first I couldn't really believe what I was hearing. I thought that my stylus must have been damaged and it couldn't be tracking right. I pulled high violet off of my platter and put on OK Computer and the sound was rich, lush, dynamic and exciting.
If you love The National, don't let this dissuade you from buying this record. The songs are indeed great and I still spin the record regardless. If you're new to The National and you plan on playing this record on anything more sophisticated than an all-in-one big box stereo, don't be surprised when it comes out sounding like an itunes download playing through cheap ipod earbuds.
If I were in The National, I would be absolutely livid at the post-production botch job this record received. It's a real shame.
on July 15, 2015
I've had this disc for several years so I now feel qualified to make a statement about it.
This is not music that you would put on to liven up a party. Oh, far from it. This is music to pour into your favorite glass, to sit in your most personal chair, to savor like a good scotch or bourbon, to appreciate its complexity, its complement to the surface of the sea stirred by an approaching storm.
on October 27, 2013
Ever hear a band that has been around for a while and think: "How have I not heard about these guys!" That's the case with The National. Imagine Leonard Cohen's love child forms a band, that's the sound of singer Matt Berninger, supported by a band that knows how to create just the right accompaniment to his haunting poetry. I bought their latest, then within a week bought the rest of their catalog. I just play them all on shuffle and they flow together seamlessly, carrying you along in every emotion under the sun.
on June 28, 2010
The National's music inspires the head before it touches any heart. Matt Berringer's lyrics get you thinking if you are willing to think. His songs are not quite as obtuse as some critics argue. Try wading through Thom Yorke or Michael Stipe's figurative menageries for a proper representation of "obtuse." Instead, I suggest that Berringer is as playful and funny as he is insightful and poignant. His lyrics have the rare ability to capture personal and cultural conditions like Joseph Heller did in Something Happened or Catch-22. To me, High Violet has a caustic kinship with Heller's Something Happened and Lewis's Babbitt and Mainstreet. His album is a strident 2010 commentary on love, fatherhood, and relationships. There is no doubt that there is a drug-induced, "high," element to his aural stories. He exists as a ghost or in a etheral zombie-like trance throughout much of the album. The album's main trope, however, is the colors Berringer consistently interposes. Feelings are the colors of emotions. We don't necessarily perceive emotions. We witness them as feelings, as the colors of our emotions. Violet is a combination of blue and red. Most symbolic references to the darker colors associate them with sorrow, but violet, according to one of the more cogent websites, "is also the highest and most subtle specialization of light." It will be obvious, even after the most cursory of listenings, that fear and sorrow color much of this album. It is important to remember, though, that while violet can a "dark" color in a metaphoric sense, the color is a possible spiritual beginning as well. I suppose we will have to wait until the next album to find out what happens next. Finally, I agree with most critics that this album has a tighter thematic construction than Boxer and Alligator, but this does not mean it does not have some great songs. For example, "Conversation 16" is an incredibly well-written and melodic song.
on January 17, 2011
Just a phenomenal CD, I have never listened to a CD over and over like this one, and is the only CD I have (out of more than 100) where I don't hit the "skip" button. His rich baritone voice, the drums, the guitar, the arc of each song, the sequence of songs on the CD, the wonderfully metaphoric and melancholy lyrics, not a cliche to be found. By the time he sings "The storm will suck the pretty girls into the sky" on track 4, your ears, soul, and mind will be near orgasm. If you are in your car, just try not to miss your turns and exits while listening to this CD.
If you are looking for an upbeat CD this isn't for you (for instance, "Sorrow found me when I was young, sorrow waited, sorrow won"). Or if you want literal, cliched lyrics. For instance, someone here criticized "I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees, I never married, But Ohio don't remember me" as nonsense. Only if you don't know what a metaphor is. He returns to Ohio, dazed (head buzzing) by the weight of life and of trying to make a living, and even though he never settled down anywhere else, when he returns home to Ohio to earn a living (which you get from other lyrics) finds that Ohio isn't home any more. I haven't figured out all the lyrics, but I'm enjoying the experience of trying to figure them out.
If all artists took albums as seriously as this one, where every song is excellent, purposeful, and well placed, maybe the making of albums (as opposed to making appr. 10 songs and sticking them together on a CD) wouldn't be such a dying art. Those of you 35 and over probably know what I mean.
on June 19, 2013
From start to finish, The National's 2010 album High Violet does what the band do best. It's an emotional, calculated, and downright lovely addition to their catalog, and an album that will for years be seen as a masterpiece of soundscapes. The record's opener, Terrible Love, features driving guitar rhythm and the lead singer's characteristic baritone voice reaching for higher places, with the song slowly escalating to a pretty wonderful climax before moving on to the ever more impressive second track, the optimistic downer Sorrow, which may be the album's lyrical highlight. Anyone's Ghost utilizes a very catchy chorus, while Little Faith's greatest asset is how much room it leaves for breath. The next track, Afraid of Everyone, shows the lead singer's fears of being a new father, while Bloodbuzz Ohio's temporary glimpse into light brings the song out of darkness, if just for a second, before thrusting the listener head on into the most optimistic track on the record, Lemonworld, which is so catchy and lovely that it almost feels like a sing-a-long song. Next, the band almost makes the album with the track Runaway, with its slowly rising tension building to a calculated and slow-paced chorus that almost writes itself, before moving on to the almost chaotic Conversation 16. Finally, the album reaches its climax with the epic England, which is the high point in an album full of gems. Almost every word of this track is reminiscent of songwriting so good you'd think Lennon and McCartney would have penned it. After England, Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks acts more like an epilogue than a closing track, quietly saying good night to its listener.
I bought this record on vinyl, and it was worth the extra money I shelled out for the it! Listening on vinyl really magnifies the beautiful and organic nature of this album, making it sound even more open yet somehow contained. Do yourself a favor and buy the vinyl version! You'll be glad you did.