Saturday, May 15, 2010

Album Review: The National – High Violet

At last, a review of a current album! I’ve been looking forward to this album for some time as I am a big fan of The National. Yet there’s a tinge of sadness to this review. I have to accept by now that The National is no longer “my band”, my little secret. Recent reviews in other publications mentioned “the American Elbow” which kind of sums up my feelings. In short, they’ve been discovered by the discerning music fan. And, no doubt, the not so discerning.

I had been hoping they would follow up the wonderful Boxer with a ‘difficult’ album that would alienate people. They haven’t. It’s a really strong album, full of great songs, and easily as consistent as their last few albums. First track Terrible Love is a little atypical, starting off with some slightly rough spidery guitar (as he sings “it’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders”), but it builds and builds into a sort of mini-anthem. It’s a little bit of a departure for them, singer Matt Berninger sings this one in a higher register than usual, as he does on a few tracks.

With Sorrow we’re back on home ground. It’s a classic mid-tempo National track, with a wonderful ringing bassline. Berninger sings “I don’t want to get over you” which is probably a Magnetic Fields reference. Anyone’s Ghost is also a strong song of theirs, with some cello and strong drumming, and sounds like it would have fit in well on Boxer. There’s a theme of getting out of the city in the lyrics in certain songs, as referenced in Little Faith, and later in Conversation 16.

He uses his higher register for one of the stronger songs, Afraid of Everyone, which is a kind of anxious, worried song which descends in on it self. Bloodbuzz Ohio is fine, though a little like The National on auto-pilot. Runaway is just lovely, with plucked guitar and another strong bassline. Plenty of goose-bump moments in the chorus, and some nice brass to boot. Conversation 16 is like Ada off their last album Boxer gone anthemic. He references Bret Easton Ellis on this one (“I was afraid I’d eat your brains”)

England features a ringing piano line, which starts with an uplifting pattern, and then, just before it changes and you think “oh wouldn’t be great if the music went there”, the music actually does go to just that place you anticipated! It's a marvellous moment on album full of such moments. There’s a wonderfully resonant chorus line (“you must be somewhere in London, you must be loving your life in the rain”) which is a great image of loss and longing, and more brass towards the end of the song. It's got to be a Red House Painters reference, for anyone familiar with Katy Song. Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks is the last song and Berninger is once again in his higher register, sounding a note of uncertainty. It’s a kind of awkward song and I have to commend them for finishing with this rather than the more obvious England.

Berninger is not the Mr. November of 5 years ago any more. He’s grown up, less angry but not necessarily happier, which informs his lyrics. The album itself is great, and is growing on me with each listen. When it finishes, you just want to put it on again. Definitely a strong contender for album of the year.