Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The National - High Violet (4AD)

A Summer Lovin' Torture Party.

I've been holding out on writing this review for a week or so because this band are a prettay big deal in these indie circles where "earlier material" is king and a "pitchfork" is less a tool to toil the earth with and more a bible but I've listened to this album a lot over the past eight days and I feel pretty qualified to write so here goes.

Firstly, 'High Violet' is no departure in sound or even content from past National albums and more specifically the past two 'breakthrough' records 'Boxer' and 'Alligator'. Secondly, if you've heard one or both of those records you'll already know you're in for some next level shit. It's safe to say that both of those albums have a strong shout at being 'albums of the year' in the years they were released - 2007 and 2005 respectively. However, a more pressing matter is whether 'High Violet', come end of year time, will feature equally as highly on polls you'll no doubt read on blogs just like this one right hurr.

In short, it will. 'High Violet' is an immaculately crafted record that captures a special band on a run of stellar releases that I cannot recall being bettered by anyone else in a long time. The orchestration is beautifully measured, Matt Berninger's vocals are as monotone yet as emotional as ever and as always noted with albums from this band, the drumming is exceptional. Listen to the ghostly gospel backing of 'Afraid of Everyone', that two steps up and two steps down piano of 'England', the fact that Berninger seems to come in a little early on 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks' yet the song sounds heartbreakingly perfect. Everything is in its right place. Again, The National amaze me in the way they can create music that is both instantaneous yet has incredible longevity. In an instant and transient world of music, it's so refreshing to hear that someone is making music that is accessible on a commercial level whilst not sacrificing anything in quality or depth. You get the feeling that if this one doesn't shoot these guys to the big time then they might just be forever stuck in the barrel. They really couldn't do much more.

'High Violet' is eleven tracks long which some could say is a little short. However, such is the emotional investment required in listening to these songs as a complete set, I think that is just about right. Highlights can be found at pretty much every corner. I don't seem to adore 'Terrible Love' as much as many others which had me a little worried considering its the opening track but after that you're truly plain sailing. The second half of the record is arguably a little stronger than the first half but really, I'm already nit picking. If I had to pick, I have to say that 'Runaway' has become a go-to track for me. It's wonderfully paced and reminds me a little of 'Start a War' which I played (and still do) to death. Berninger switches between sounding defiant and desperate with equal measure as verse segues to chorus and back again and the effect is just stunning. "We gotta 'nother thing comin' undone and it's taking us over.," Ouch. 'Lemonworld' is another favourite that you could file under 'definitive National'. Again, perfectly paced with a wonderful set of verses delivered with that trademark detached passion that only Berninger can afford. As a songwriter, Berninger has grown and grown with each release and here his pen is more honed than ever. A master at employing simple sentences to devastating use, 'High Violet' is an album full of songs that'll have you visiting one of those virus and pop-up infested lyric sites in no time.

To pinpoint why this band are so good is, however, difficult. Sure they make great songs, nay, albums of great songs but there's more to it than that. I think the lack of pretense in which they go about this crazy business helps. Much is made of The National being "normal blokes" that (up until relatively recently I assume) had jobs in IT and stuff. Thing is, I don't find that fact amazing in any way. These songs are made for the everyday, they are made for the uncertainty of growing up in a time and body that you're not really sure how you inherited. It's about only being certain that you're uncertain, only knowing that you don't know. They aren't a band that sneer or posture, they are a extremely talented band that work hard and honestly at their art and because of this, they get exceptional results. For me, the thing that separates them from every other band working today is the way they can drape their songs with heavy amounts of melancholy, beauty and humour, yet never ever suffocate them. They simply never sound like they are trying too hard or like they are forcing anything and they always sound right.

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