Review: The National: "High Violet"

The National

High Violet

By Motown Mark

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It's rare, especially when you hear over 50+ albums a week, that an album takes hold of you. You never have enough time to devote yourself to repeated listens, to hear all the buried intricacies, to really sit down and look at the production notes and listen to the lyrics. High Violet, the National's fifth full length, went straight for the jugular and pinned me down - only allowing me to get up to lift the record needle and start it over again. It's been following me around, in my headphones, in my computer, on my record player for the past week. I've tried and tried to listen to other albums, but I make it through three tracks and put High Violet back on. It's become an obsession, an addiction that I don’t want to kick.

The opening track, "Terrible Love,” starts quietly, with low fuzzed-out guitars and singer Matt Berninger's baritone repeating, "It's a terrible love and I'm walking with spiders." As the track continues, the tempo builds and crescendos into cacophony with Berninger screaming through the dissonance, "It takes an ocean not to...break!"

All National albums are laced with an almost obsessive self-deprecation. Songs about love and loss, about being lost, about being unavailable both mentally and emotionally. About hiding behind the confines of yourself and drowning everything else out with any mixture of pills and booze you can concoct. It's become Berninger's and the band's trademarked motif, so to speak. High Violet doesn't break away from their track record - rather, they refine and, dare I say, cohesively master it.

On “Afraid of Everyone,” Berninger's almost agoraphobic mindset comes out to shine. The title says it all. It starts off with little instrumentation. You hear Bon Iver's Justin Vernon humming his haunting falsetto in the back ground, sparse sparking guitar notes that seem like synapses firing in the brain of Berninger while he repeats, “I'm afraid of everyone” and then goes on to say, “I don't have the drugs to sort it out.” The drum sounds like a heart stricken with panic and Sufjan Stevens' multi-instrumental work only adds to the grief of being out in daylight.

“Conversation 16” follows in the same path. It focuses on wanting but not being able to commit. In the song Berninger is a “confident liar,” and “evil” but still, you're the only thing he wants anymore. And don't get too close because he'll “eat your brains” for all you zombie lovers out there.

The songs are lush, haunting and dark. There's no glimmering beacon in the distance to be found on this album. It glares at society and runs, hides from it. But therein lies the album's beauty. Being both complex lyrically and musically it's hard to deny that High Violet is the National's most concise album to date. They took everything that's worked in the past, sorted out all the kinks, peppered it with indie darlings, filled out their sound and, in my opinion, put out their best album.