Narwhal Party

High Violet
05/16/2010, 12:07 pm
Filed under: Music | Tags: , , , ,

The National are a band I resisted when they first started popping up on my radar with 2005’s Alligator. I finally gave in and found a strange, moody, and captivating world contained on a monster of an album. By the time their next record came out (2007’s Boxer), they had gained a considerable following, and rightfully so. Boxer marked a distinct departure from Alligator, which was at times equal parts pop and catharsis. Boxer was subdued, restrained, and absolutely lush. And now with High Violet, The National alleviate a great deal of the tension they painstakingly built. Where Boxer is a somber affair that swirls and pulses in its bleary-eyed gloom, High Violet builds and explodes and broadens the sonic pallet that kept Boxer so tightly wound. It’s not a shift or change, as much as it is a blooming.

Songs like “Afraid Of Everyone,” “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” and “Terrible Love” are explosive. Still, in places, The National take their time to let the mood simmer. “Sorrow” maintains a steady, solemn beauty and let’s the space settle between each note, highlighting the singer’s life-long romance with the titular character (“Sorrow found me when I was young/Sorrow waited, Sorrow won…Sorrow’s my body on the waves/Sorrow’s a girl inside my cake”). [Side-note: Berninger uses his go-to image of cake at least twice on the album. That’s at least four or five cake references over the course of the last three records] The fantastic “Lemonworld” is reminiscent of Boxer’s “Slow Show,” quietly propulsive. Like most narrators in National songs, the lyrics detail a young man perpetually out of place. But it’s “Runaway” that is most arresting. The song wrenches and pulls, but never really builds or breaks. Less experienced bands would build up the drums and unleash a flood of crash cymbals and distortion—turning the tender, humble ballad into the Power Ballad, without any tact or grace. The National, on the other hand, decide to keep things where they are. They let it marinate. In an expert show of restraint, there’s not a single cymbal or big shaking guitar chord (in the same way, we only get the smallest taste of hi-hat on the tom-dominated “Lemonworld”). The steady repetition of the lyrics becomes a meditation, a prayer. “We don’t bleed, when we don’t fight” becomes a plea and by the end of the song, “I won’t be no runway” has turned from a shaky promise to a stubborn vow. Singer Matt Berninger has always known the power of repetition in song, and he employs the tactic throughout High Violet. On the lush, swelling “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” with the help of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, the whole band melodically chants, “All of the best of us string ourselves up for love,” like a mantra.

The National succeed the most at creating moods with cycles—a small, repeating guitar riff, lyrics that are reiterated throughout a song, woodwinds and brass weaving in and out of each other, a droning harmonium. The craftsmanship of the band can easily be overshadowed by the striking results. The music can seem deceptively simple and the lyrics can seem merely impressionistic, but the end results are only reached by a calculated precision that can be found in the layers and only seem to emerge with several listens.

The band stopped by The Late Show to play “Afraid Of Everyone” (with Sufjan Stevens and Padma Newsom). The song is a coiled bundle of paranoia—Matt Berninger’s first song for his baby daughter. But when all that fear and anxiety breaks into some kind of triumph and the band finds the root (the shift from A Minor to C Major as Berninger shouts “soul soul soul soul soul…”), it’s a control that few bands can maintain and manipulate so impeccably.

Here’s the Letterman performance (highly recommended):

And you can now view an entire concert (or at least most of one), as directed by DA Pennebaker (famous for his film shot on Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour, “Don’t Look Back”), at a special YouTube site. The Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Perry shows up. So does past collaborator Doveman. And a bunch of strings. And horns. What a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.


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