The National: High Violet

The National – High Violet [4AD]
Release date: May 11

In a 2007 interview with The Nerve, singer Matt Berninger commented:

The National, in my mind, has always been a New York thing. As far as New York being a place where there’s more pressure, I think the opposite is true. The city is incredibly nurturing to bands.

The National may New York to thank for much of their success as musicians, but something seems to have happened to them – or at least to songwriter Matt Berninger – that changed his opinion of the city, for the worse. Gone is any semblance of urban satisfaction on High Violet. And I’m not talking about just a passing disparaging comment. No, the disdain seems to be palpable.

Lyrics range from “Lemonworld”:
So happy I was invited. It gave me a reason to get out of the city. See you inside watching swarms on TV. Livin’ or dyin’ in New York it means nothing to me.

to being stuck in New York and the rain’s coming down in “Little Faith.” There’s even a post-apocalyptic reference to the Manhattan valleys of the dead in “Anybody’s Ghost.” (1)

I can get beyond the whining for the most part. I mean who doesn’t long to get out of the city every now and then. Berninger’s pleasant deep baritone also masks most of the complaining. But it’s another story entirely on songs like “Runaway” and “Vanderlye Cry Baby Geeks” when he leaves behind his smooth voice and stretches his range to sing higher notes. Some people complain that Berninger’s voice is too monotone and lacks diversity (2), but High Violet suggests that maybe Berninger should stick to what he does best.

Take “Runaway,” for example:

Of course, you could also argue that the strain in his voice is more raw and really expresses a sense of longing, and there’s something to that. I still maintain that it’s a dangerous territory to enter due to the risk of sounding pained – and dare I say it – a little bit… emo.

In addition to the New-York-sucks motif, preoccupations with water and weather also factor prominently into High Violet. It’s really astounding. Tracks 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 all contain references to water be it through oceans, rivers, rain, or floods.

But let’s move beyond all that. I’ll try not to take the whole New York thing as an affront.

Over the course of their career, The National has showcased increasingly excellent instrumentation, and High Violet is no exception. In addition to the usual fare, brass and string instruments factor prominently into the lush mix. They may officially be a five-piece, but in a live setting the sheer volume of textures on the album becomes apparent via the extra help the band invokes to help complete their sound.

Take a listen to one of my favorite cuts from the new album, “Anyone’s Ghost,” which the band recently performed for WNYC’s Soundcheck:

Gone are the raucous songs of the past like “Mr. November.” But that doesn’t mean that High Violet is without feeling.

Waves of paranoia and frustrations invade the lyrics. At one point, Berninger basically admits to being a zombie. I was afraid I’d eat your brains, he sings in “Conversation 16.”

But what I love about The National is that they don’t just create an art form for the ears. The lyrics of High Violet are highly evocative. Intriguing one-liners fill the songs with images.

I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees sounds almost mythological, and a game of nuns versus priests sounds both comical and terrifying.

The bottom line: Is it good? Yes. Do I like it more than Boxer? No… at least not yet.

The dapperly dressed quintet is playing a (rather impromptu, and almost definitely sold-out) show at BAM this Saturday. Check it out if you can. The sound quality promises to be fantastic. Also – let me know if you have an extra ticket! (My computer at work was so slow that the show sold out before I could even pull up the page to get a ticket).

(1) I also could have sworn that the lyrics to “Anybody’s Ghost” were:
The city is not inside my heart. It was. The city should tear a kid apart. It does.

But it turns out they’re: “you said it was not inside my heart”

(2) I, on the other hand, have always been drawn to his soul-satisfying voice.

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