Review: High Violet by The National

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Rating: 9.8/10

I really didn’t like this album.  I place some of the blame on me, but much on High Violet.  I finally got this album in an absolute downpour of music.  Flashy stuff from LCD Soundsystem and Janelle Monae were quick to get my attention, and I’ve already commented on “Compliments” brought me back to Band of Horses.

It took me a long time to finally sit down and listen to High Violet with real purpose.  Basic overviews left me uncertain, particularly with such an album low-point tacked on the front (“Terrible Love”).  I thought it was like a cheap imitation of Boxer.  I just couldn’t get myself to like it.

Then it clicked.  The key for me was hearing this in a quiet place with a decent set of headphones.  Unlike much in rock today, louder isn’t necessarily better here.  Instead, The National have refined the darkest, most somber moments from their past work.  Everything is very quiet, very textured.  After the intro song, everything operates in shadows.  The effect is mystifying and allows rewards with each listen.

But many bands are rewarding – why is this one so praised?  We can thank the musical composition and the lyrical content.  There are dense layers here, but never they’re never needless.  Instead there is a real atmosphere about this record.  Sometimes that term is condescending.  Here, it’s the perfect compliment: the album is sonically cohesive, while managing to explore.  Pianos, deep thudding drums, big bass, and appropriately sparse guitar all work well to paint a sonic picture.

Lyrical content is the next step on the path to excellence.  The singing is contained this time – tasteful background singing is met by a beautiful tenor lead (and this time without pointless yelping).  The words also manage to find reasonable meaning.  Everything seems of normal life and observation (yes, even the brains part), but is described in a slightly vague way.  While seemingly self-indulgent, the poetic technique works here as the sounds bring the rest of the mood.

Perhaps the best praise I can offer High Violet is my lack of a favorite song.  It’s not for lack of trying – I’ve been looking for one representative piece.  But each time I hear this record, I think “wow, this is a fantastic song,” only to repeat the act about four minutes later.  There are little moments all over the album – the part about the “hole in the middle” in “Anyone’s Ghost” where the cellos strike, the intro distortion to “Little Faith,” the light “ahhs” of the background vocals in most every song.  Then there is the line about the money in “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” or maybe the exhausted refrain in “Lemonworld,” and the chilling “silver cities” of “Conversation 16.”  Each song brings something, and manages to impress for the whole track.

I can’t overstate how suddenly and drastically this album has changed for me.  It went from a brooding failure to follow up on Boxer to a clear frontrunner in this already-packed year of music.  High Violet is both the most consistent and impressive release from The National.  It takes some time, but this is a must-own record.

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