In May 2010 The National released their 5th studio album High Violet a whole 3 years later than Boxer. That steady, solid build from Alligator onwards – what was setting The National apart was that they were becoming a rare beast of a band that get better with every album. Could this continue?
High Violet is wholly self-penned, largely self-produced and is deeper crafted than anything they had released prior. The National pose the sound of a more accessible Joy Division and reach, unwittingly, into stadium rock with ridiculous ease.
Terrible Love is initially sombre. It plods before channeling energy from distant guitars gives way to a chasing sound. The song bounces off itself, repeats deeper and the clatter of drums takes it to another level. “Ooohs” as backing vocals queue a menace of instrumentation and the lead vocal drowns quite literally in sound.
Sorrow revisits the tone of Boxer but this does sound more mature. The band just play. There is no searching for the spotlight. Matt Berninger delivers a monotone vocal of the sorrow the title suggests – it’s beautifully well done and wrapped in mystery and charm.
Anyone’s Ghost is another plodder even if it is slightly more National-by-numbers. Played loud layers of quality musicianship shine through. The question now is “is this a Boxer beater”?
Little Faith offers more charm and poetry. Instruments wave from “Indie” to near “Classical” the craft is that good. Whilst not a throat grabber the song typifies The National. Mourn and mystery. An ever so subtle raise of urgency and the song fades with sonic waves.
Okay, so far High Violet is not totally on par with Boxer. It needs a shot in the arm, something more… That’s exactly what we get. The middle section of High Violet is the meat and bones of their true development. Afraid Of Everyone develops the sound of the albums opener. This time the backing vocals give way to steely guitar slithers. The drums pull the track fully together before the lead vocal really takes grip. Briefly the instruments challenge each other, the track simply swells and rises before hitting a totally new spinning gear. “With my kid on my shoulders I try, not to hurt anybody I like, but I don’t have the drugs to sort it out, little voices swallowing my soul, soul, soul”. There is no backtracking just more urgency then it’s gone. When The National touch Joy Division musically and indeed lyrically the results can be mesmerising.
Now we get the real National circa 2010 in full flight. The supreme confidence with zero arrogance that is Bloodbuzz Ohio. A song that hits senses you may not have known were there. Trumpets, piano, guitar, bass and drums solidify. Guitars bleed and the track fades leaving you really wanting more.
Lemonworld hits the sombre button but does so in a more accomplished way then managed before on any National album. A bellowing lullaby muted under a pillow of dreams and lush soundscapes. Poetry pours out. Open to interpretation, mysterious and more-some like all good things are.
Can they really keep this up? Maybe. Runaway is a downstep but after the three previous tracks that really can be excused. Soft and almost excusing itself. Conversation 16 is more storytelling and glides easier than the previous track. Lyrics temporarily verge on Slayer territory “I was afraid that I’d eat your brains, ’cause I’m evil”.
The anthem of England is next but this is no National Anthem. That yearning sound that The National can deliver is in fine, fine form here. That slow gathering of vocals and instruments leading to a rousing yet never overstated swelling sound. This is real stadium rock – Bono are you reading?
Valderlyle Crybaby Geeks closes High Violet and closes many of their live shows even to date. That altogether lost in our own shit unifying cry. We understand everything and we understand nothing. Rousing yet stark – laid bare almost.
High Violet is, in my opinion bettered by Boxer – just. That said it is a far better album than most bands could ever dream of writing and performing. The following Trouble Will Find Me although ambitious falls near this mark and it’s quite possible, even if slightly unlikely that we are yet to hear the best National album still. Long may they continue…