RATE HIGH VIOLET:
The National are grown-ups. They sing about having children, about the ups and downs of middle-aged life. It’s indie rock for your parents. Blah blah blah, serious old people music, blah blah blah.
If I read one more damn review that talks about how The National is dad rock, I’m going to be sick. For some reason, music pundits have decided that The National are too nuanced for the at-risk youth. These kids with their drugs and their Facebook and their Sleigh Bells, these kids won’t get this band. Forget. That. Noise. This isn’t mature music for people with humdrum lives. This is fascinating music for people with real lives, long and short.
Somewhere along the line we forgot about this type of music – we forgot that sad music can be weirdly uplifting. It’s rare to find intelligent and intelligible lyrics these days without first rooting through layers of gauzy haze, and you’re more likely to find a watering can on a record than a clarinet. The National are here to remind us how multi-faceted and absolutely stunning this rock and roll of ours can be.
High Violet is a synthesis of The National’s career to date, their best album in a run of stellar albums. Throughout the record, swelling and orchestral instrumentation supports Matt Berninger’s trademark baritone with clarity and profundity. The songs are beautiful. They are well written and well executed, perfectly polished to avoid overproduction but still carrying themselves with poise and professionalism.
Success wasn’t guaranteed; this band treads on thin ice. In another artist’s hands The National’s songs could easily tip toward stunning mediocrity. They don’t have sex appeal. They aren’t songs to play at parties. They don’t contain embedded clues for listeners – the tempos and production techniques used by other artists to construct false energy or emotion are missing here. Instead of laying it all on the surface, The National put faith in their talents and their audience, a gamble that is handsomely rewarded. These are meticulously crafted studies in nuance and subtlety. The melodies are lush, layered, and exquisite. Dark though their themes may be, these tunes are gorgeous.
“Afraid of Everyone,” “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” and “Lemonworld” make up the heart and soul of an album not lacking in either. It’s a simply awesome trio. At track five, “Afraid of Everyone” is a well-placed orchestral lament, an ode to the confusion of the world. Following it is “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the song that perhaps best showcases Berninger’s pipes, describing the thrill of being surrounded by family with a swelling feeling that fills my chest as I listen to it. Following that high, on “Lemonworld,” the New York natives find a bit of meaning – or is it emptiness? – in the countryside. It’s an emotionally rich run that I could listen to over and over and over again. Such is the depth of these songs.
The song titles of High Violet suggest a bleak existence, a world full of evil and malice. “Terrible Love” and “Little Faith.” “Afraid of Everyone” and “Runaway.” In the lyrics, Berninger hints at an apathy toward life, detachment described in lines like, “Living or dying in New York it means nothing to me.” In reality, though, this album proves the opposite – that there is beauty to be found even in the darkest times of our lives. These guys are sensitive, almost to a fault; are we supposed to believe that they really don’t care?
The National care about capturing life without its sugar-coated shell. They care about making music that is best enjoyed fully and slowly. They care about crafting complete songs that make complete albums that deserve second and fifth and tenth listens. After that many spins I still haven’t gotten a handle on all the minutiae that make High Violet special, but I do know this: Everyone keeps saying that this is a sad album. It’s not. It’s an honest album, a real album. And it’s breathtaking.
88 — Outstanding. First-class piece of work in its given genre. This particular artist’s best work to-date. [Rating Scale]
To enter to win a copy of the National's Boxer, Alligator and High Violet on vinyl (or CD), leave a comment with your thoughts on High Violet, rate the album and "like" PMA's Facebook Page. A winner will be picked at random on May 21st. Stream High Violetat NPR.