Sound: Finally, after three years, the Brooklyn-based Ohio-native band The National have released their greatly anticipated 5th album "High Violet". Those familiar with The National's previous ventures, there was a great deal riding on the success of this album after their previous album The Boxer made it to the top of numerous top 10 lists the year of its release. I am happy to report that this newest effort is everything and more.
Firstly, the tone of this album closely follows prior ones. Frontman Matt Berninger's deep baritone voice glides slowly through each solemn brooding song very much as you expect that it would. For those not familiar with The National's sound, they weave emotionally dark atmospheric songs driven heavily by bass drums and highly distorted guitars with using building up to a crescendo with strings and/or trumpets. High Violet keeps up that tradition, but by no means have the band driven this formula into the ground or run out of ideas. It is amazing how in some cases such architecturally simple songs where only 2 or 3 chords used can create such emotional adventures, such as in their first singles "Terrible Love" and "Bloodbood Ohio". The simplicity with this album is really its key. It does not try to dazzle you with spectacle or ostentation. The basic arrangements of songs like "Runaway" and "Sorrow" make them two of my favourite songs on this album. With the amount of time The National had in producing this album, I half expected it would be an muddled over-anticipated mess like so many bands tend to produce after one critically acclaimed album. Yet through it all, The National stayed true to their sound and path (a very particular one in this genre might I add). // 9
Lyrics: There are very few singers that can get away with singing so deeply yet so emotively at the same time. Matt Berninger definitely stands among the few that can, along with Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. And not surprisingly, deep voiced singers tend to focus on themes of depression, loss and anger. Throughout "High Violet" I can so clearly hear the frustration Matt Berninger has for life. I just envision drunk nights under a low lamp with hand firmly planted on forehead when hearing songs such as "Runaway" asking us, "What makes you think I enjoy being led to the flood?/We've got another thing comin' undone and it's takin' us over." Meanwhile in the song "Sorrow", you can just taste the heartbreak he's feeling when he sings, "Don't leave my heart burning hot alone on the water/...'cos I don't wanna get over you."
The one word I am left with as a describing theme for Berninger's lyrics in "High Violet" is "hopelessness". This album is full of lamentations of love, New York City, youth/aging and self-reflection. Definitely not lite-fare, yet it succeeds in not coming off as whiny or boo-hoo weepy. It's just the dark poetic writings of another tortured soul pouring his heart into his songs. // 9
Overall Impression: In my opinion, "High Violet" is, as of yet, this years best release. I waited for it for so long and the relief of it being better than I expected it would be made it all the more enjoyable. This album consistently pleases (yet not as consistent as their previous album "Boxer"). Said plainly, this album may not be as accessible to new listeners as "Boxer" was, so I would recommend, if you haven't listened to "Boxer" yet, grab that one first, and if you are hooked, then dig right into "High Violet". Other than that, I struggle to find many bad things to say about this album. One notable thing I can say is that the studio version of "Terrible Love" feels degraded and murky compared to the cleaner fuller version they recorded on their Jimmy Fallon Show appearance. I would have been happier with the latter version on the album rather than this poorer studio effort.
In closing, I would hope that this new album has proven that The National can finally enter the national discourse of GREATNESS as a mature talent and no longer simply just up-and-comers. Their brand of orchestrated indie-rock is something this world could use more of. // 9