WHEN I FIRST listened to The National, way back in 2011, I dismissed them as being, drab, boring and slow. Oh what a young sceptic I was. Revisiting High Violet around three and a half years later opened my eyes to what I’d looked over. The National’s fifth studio album is a thing of melancholy beauty, filled with baritone vocals, tender guitar work and lush orchestration.
High Violet is a very sombre album, and its track titles reflect that. ‘Terrible Love’, ‘Afraid Of Everyone’, ‘Sorrow’ and ‘Runaway’ all paint a picture of a less than ideal lifestyle, tortured decision making and facing your demons. To compliment the deep emotional textures of this album, the National employ some excellent instrumentation. While basing their music around the traditional drum/bass/guitar structure, the band expand this by exploring what can be done with these instruments. The haunting guitar wails on ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ and the distorted introduction on ‘Little Faith’ are just two examples of the experimental guitar work used by the band.
But then we get chamber elements to their music that make the emotional moments of this album stand out threefold. The organ introduction on ‘Afraid Of Everyone’ coupled with the beautiful backing vocals make it one of the best tracks on the album, while the horns and piano work on ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ make it incredibly moving. One of my favourite songs on the album, ‘Lemonworld’ incorporates some lovely strings into the mix, while ‘Runaway’ utilises a more stripped back approach, with soft drums and additional horns that make the song seem almost become a funeral march.
Throughout this entire album there’s a complete undercurrent of sadness. Even the song ‘England’ contains the notable line ‘You must be somewhere in London/ You must be loving our life in the rain’. How deeply ironic. But even with the dark humour, it’s tempting to see High Violet as more than an album; it’s more like a eulogy, a tribute. Matt Berninger’s lyrics often feel autobiographical, and his baritone vocals give the feeling of a priest delivering a sermon. The uplifting yet subdued music That National create sends mixed emotions through the listener, creating awe, yet sadness.
One of the more notable lines in album closer ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ goes: ‘All the very best of us string ourselves up for love’. If you had to sum up this album in a sentence, this would work perfectly.
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