Words are not enough to describe the level of expectation leveled on The National for their fifth album. The band finally hit their stride, and gained a very sizable following, with their 2007 masterstroke, “Boxer.” It saw them build on the musical promises of their earlier efforts and refine their sound into an album full of memorable songs that explored the perils of adult life. On the heels of Matt Berninger’s lyrics and vocal stylings and the musical talents of twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner and brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf, the album brought the band into the spotlight after a seven year upward trajectory, earning them firm footing in the hearts of critics, fans, and newcomers alike. It is often hard to follow up a career defining album, and many bands respond to the immense pressures by trying a new direction, for fear of sounding too much like themselves. However, with “High Violet” the National decided to take the road less traveled by continuing to refine their sound, and in turn have created an album that is a more than worthy successor to “Boxer.”

A New York Times profile story released in April explored the contentious process of making the album, explaining that there was a great level of refinement, construction and deconstruction of songs, and disagreements that went into the recording sessions. The National are a tight knit group who take an almost surgeon like approach to their craft. However, the beautiful thing about their albums is that they don’t sound as though they were labored over. While each song is expertly crafted and fine tuned, it is not at all noticeable, as there is an organic and almost spontaneous quality to the  music. “High Violet” proves as no exception to the rule. The dense guitar work of Scott Devendorf and Bryce Dessner swells to gut-wrenching levels, while the driving rhythms of Aaron Dessner and the top-notch percussion of Bryan Devendorf give the songs their drive and force. It all comes together to make for many memorable musical moments, independent of Berninger’s baritone and his lyrics.

Describing Berninger as a singer is an arduous task in and of itself. He sings with an air of detachment, while at the same time his voice is a dominant force whenever it is present. This may have to do with the substance of his lyrics. “High Violet” continues the themes explored in “Boxer” by focusing on the harsh realities that one faces after the days of youth and innocence have passed. For example, on standout track “Little Faith,” Berninger feels “Stuck in New York,” and in turn sets fires “just to see what it kills.”  This discontent with the stagnations and downfalls of maturity present themselves in the forms of bad relationships, depression, and a desire for escape. Berninger sings about these feelings with such conviction that one can’t help but be a witness to his sorrow. On top of arrangements that suit the melancholic mood, his singing is the final ingredient that is needed to make these songs intensely personal while exploring agonies and discomforts felt by everyone. This is perhaps the most unique quality about The National’s music, and what sets them apart from their contemporaries.

“High Violet” contains many songs that rank among the group’s best. Although it sounds like it was recorded from a faded AM wavelength, “Terrible Love” is an astonishing album opener that builds on the distorted guitars with piano and background vocal harmonies, creating an almost haunting atmosphere. Meanwhile, “Sorrow” contains some of Berninger’s most vivid lyrics when he sings “Sorrow that put me on the pill, it’s in my honey it’s in my milk.” Lead single “Bloodbuzz Ohio” builds itself around Devendorf’s tight drumming, and is as close to an anthem as “Abel” or “Mistaken For Strangers” as the group has ever been. Equally as impressive is the piano driven “England,” which demonstrates the band are just as capable of conjuring a well of emotions when they more intensely focus their assault.

There is very little negative criticism that can be leveled at the album. Some may find the group’s sound to be too similar to what was presented in “Boxer,” while others may not like that there are fewer songs with the immediacy of “Apartment Story,” “Squalor Victoria,” or some of their more forceful tracks. Additionally, this album will unlikely win over any of the band’s naysayers, who find their sound too boring or esoteric. However, these do little to devalue the quality most listeners will find that this album possesses.

“High Violet” demonstrates The National at the top of their game. They have successfully followed a landmark album by not letting colossal expectations weigh them down. The group has continued to explore their sonic options, while not abandoning what has worked. Additionally, the music speaks to the emotions of almost anyone who has felt some sort of confusion, anger, or sadness about what growing older and settling into a routine entails. Because of this, “High Violet” will undoubtedly withstand the test of time, and is another piece of evidence as to why The National are one of the most important American rock bands of this generation.

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