Posted by: Jeff | April 23, 2010

Album Review: The National – High Violet

The New York Times magazine ran a feature on the recording process for The National’s latest album, High Violet, and revealed that the band’s intricate creative process has earned them fans very high up in indie aristocracy:

With the National, it’s never only rock ’n’ roll. Watching them record a song is like looking on as a group of skilled chefs make a sandwich together; even in a B.L.T., they can foresee endless possibilities. They are now five men in their mid- to late 30s, with mortgages, children, wives or serious girlfriends and musical tastes that have likewise settled into convictions. Each National song is a microbatch creation integrating their obsessive, often-diverging feelings about rock ’n’ roll. These range from the formally inventive, high-art aspirations of Bryce to the garage-band purism of Matt, who, Aaron says, “is all about if there’s heart or purpose in it. He has no interest if it’s theoretical.” By striving to accommodate these disparate points of view, the National gets what all bands want and few achieve, a sound of its own. Michael Stipe, the lead singer of R.E.M., told me that when he took Mike Mills, R.E.M.’s bass player, to hear the National perform in London, it took Mills only half of one song to exclaim, “This is the most amazing thing I’ve heard in years.” Stipe explains: “It’s instantaneous. It touches you.”

They’re a band so rich in texture and layering that even neo-classical minimalist pioneer Steve Reich heaps praise on their sonic soundscapes:

Reich likes on the new album, he said: “A major is their gold key. The melody note will be repeated but the bass and harmony will change. You’ll find it all over my music, a lot in the ‘Mother Goose’ of Ravel, and as far back as Bach. It works very well.”

Over the music, Matt Berninger’s gravelly mumble is intimate and heartfelt – everything so intentional that it feels organic, even personalized to individual listening experience.  The liberal use of horn and string sections ornament their music with that personal touch that Berninger then delivers home with restrained measure.  In addition to earning the praise of R.E.M., Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) and Sufjan Stevens both eagerly enlisted for backing vocals duty:

The juxtaposition between the singer’s mournful baritone and the joyous guitar lines and vocal harmonies is a defining characteristic of their sound. “You have to trust a voice like that,” says friend and neighbour Sufjan Stevens. “He sings like an older brother with a dark side. He’ll protect you on the playground, but he’s not afraid to tell it like it is, and he’ll kick you in the face if he has to.”

Picture: Collier Schorr for The New York Times

The National is a wonderfully musical band, and the new album is no exception.  Where previous efforts found the band exploring outer bounds of their collaborative style – the strained aggression of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers and the beautiful denouement of BoxerHigh Violet finds the band solidly in the middle, crafting epic slow-burners reminiscent of Boxer that crescendo and finally peak with an outburst of emotion that recalls the finer moments of Sad Songs and middle album Alligator.

In all, it is another wonderful album from the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Cincinnati band.  “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is the most accessible highlight on the album, though fans of the band surely know the lore behind the track – once an epic slow-burner, then a frenzied rock song, now a little bit of both.  The version that lands on the final album is the product of a long evolution that fine-tuned the song to its immaculate four-and-a-half minute current length, allowing the song to unfurl but never meander.  It’s a perfect showcase for the evolution of the band itself from garage ensemble to artistic collective, underground tremor to mainstream sensation.

According to the newspaper of record:

By the time the National was the latest buzz band from Brooklyn, they’d been together eight years and hadn’t missed a rung of the New York rock ’n’ roll ladder, from the dingy back-room gigs where the only person on hand to see them was the bartender to the five straight sold-out nights at the Bowery Ballroom when the band released “Boxer.” This June, they will fill Radio City Music Hall. At first, Aaron says, their performances were “awful.” Now, they are a riveting live act, both because their pent-up songs explode, and because Matt drinks a bottle of wine onstage and then starts climbing things. “There’s something crazy every show,” Scott says. “It’s a man-child situation.”

That feeling of risk shows up in the songs. The National’s sensibility captures the in-between feeling of being adrift in the mainstream with only a medium-size American heart to keep you from sinking. As Matt writes in the song “Slow Show,” “Looking for somewhere to stand and stay/I leaned on the wall and the wall leaned away.” It’s one of several songs that engage with the growing recognition that life out in the middle isn’t as stable as you were brought up to believe.

The second half of the record is fantastic – the stretch from the oddly endearing “Lemonworld”, a track that nearly missed the album entirely, through quintessential The National tracks “Runaway” and “Conversation 16”, and to the slow-burning ambience of “England” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” is an engrossing listen.  And at last, listen you can: to “Bloodbuzz Ohio” below or the entire album on the New York Times website until April 27.  To purchase the LP, however, you’ll have to wait until it hits stores May 11.

The National – Bloodbuzz, Ohio

Stream High Violet in its entirety at the New York Times Magazine.



  1. […] The National – High Violet […]

  2. […] Together 5. Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record 4. Sleigh Bells  – Treats 3. The National – High Violet 2. Beach House – Teen Dream 1. LCD Soundsystem – This Is […]

  3. […] Tracks from the new album, too, sounded amazing.  The expansive auditorium magnified the ambiance of many softer songs.  “England”, for instance, sounded so remarkable that I went home and played it 5 times in a row the next day stunned that I hadn’t given it any notice in previous listens to the album.  Such was the artistry with which many of the new songs were performed live that they made an immediate impact that even a dozen listens on record couldn’t produce. […]

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