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The National - High Violet

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Artist: The National

Album: High Violet

Label: 4AD

Review date: Apr. 29, 2010

There’s no question that the National has reached a new level of mainstream popularity over the last several years. Boxer, the band’s last album, was kicked-off with five sold-out shows at the Bowery Ballroom. Springsteen became an admirer. High Violet, three years later, debuts in even more lavish style. It is currently available as a full-length stream at the New York Times, accompanying a long, respectful, but curiously uninformative feature in the Sunday magazine. The establishment has bought in, and, on the one hand, that’s a heartening thing. The National is a very good band, and High Violet a solid record. It’s much better than the mainstream pap usually anointed by the paper of record.

And yet, listening to High Violet, you can’t help but notice that the crowds of admirers have arrived, as usual, a little off peak. The rowdy, bawdy humor of Alligator is all but gone. You look in vain for the cockiness of a band willing to declare, “I’m a perfect piece of ass” or to demand “fuck me and make me a drink” as they did, tongue in cheek, just a few years ago. Instead, “Sorrow” leads with Matt Berninger’s deep-voiced lament, “Sorrow found me when I was young, sorrow waited, sorrow won.” It’s a fine sounding song, ruminative, moody, paced, as per usual, by Bryan Devendorf’s rackety, punishing drums. And yet, so consciously weighty, so self-absorbed. This is the sound of a band taking itself too seriously, reaching all too hard for the big, important record.

High Violet also continues Boxer’s trajectory of slowing things down. Where Alligator had a couple of hard, fast rockers (“Mister November,” “Lit Up,” and “Abel”), Boxer’s rockers (“Brainy”) were more moderately paced. High Violet has none at all. Everything moves at a medium tempo. Although Berninger urges “Go ahead, go ahead, throw your arms in the air tonight” on “Runaway,” it’s not the kind of song that inspires the move.

Finally, there’s a sweetening in the orchestrations that marks a break with the National’s history of lean, astringent arrangements. With a couple of classicos attached to the band (guitarist Bryce Dessner and part-time member Padma Newsom are also in Clogs), they’ve always used a wide palette of instruments. Still, here, for the first time, the horns and strings and winds can sound like rock band frills rather than integral parts of the songs. You’ll notice it most in the cloying “Little Faith,” but it pops up again in “Conversation 16” in the softening that comes just before the lyrics turn to leaving the city. For the first time, the band makes use of massed choral voices, with a particularly jarring Mormon Tabernacle Choir effect coming late in “Sorrow.”

Overall, High Violet feels more like a protecting-the-franchise record than a new phase in the National’s sound. And yet, even so, a handful of its songs rank with the band’s very best. “I’m Afraid of Everyone” is slow-moving and graceful, its lavish harmonies punctuated just enough for drama, by tetchy guitars and reverberating drums. It opens in a large way, with the chorus “Your voice is swelling in so-so-soul,” with a foggy, fuzzy, space-rock guitar solo rupturing through. “Anyone’s Ghost” is more contained, but just as dramatic, and riddled with koan-like images – “I had a hole in the middle where the lightning went through it, I told my friends not to worry.” And “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” arguably the best of these tracks, more driving and tense, is shot through with a clarity and purpose missing from the rest of the album.

High Violet closes with its simplest, purest expression, the oddly named “Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks.” It starts in a trembling wash of strings and spacious piano chords. There’s time for reflection, regret and memory between the phrases, and a real sense of symmetry and grace. “I’ll explain everything to the geeks,” murmurs Berninger near track’s end. It’s a fine sardonic aside, tipped with venom, but wrapped in stately melody, and if the geeks were still listening, they’d appreciate it. But the National has moved on to a larger stage. Time for the geeks to move on.

By Jennifer Kelly

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