Wednesday, August 29, 2018
The National: High Violet (2010)
The National emerged as a sort of antidote to indie rock status quo in the mid-2000s, shirking the irony-heavy disaffected attitude-overload of the New York bands; hailing from the Midwest, they were ordinary-seeming guys with a lot of bluster and passion who liked to rock but made it sound like an outlet for something they were struggling to deal with rather than an end unto itself. You could give a similar descriptor to fellow genre-defining outsiders Arcade Fire, but unlike their Canadian peers, the National weren't youthful bleeding hearts bubbling over with undisguised enthusiasm. They sang songs of anger and resignation, despite their almost ridiculously broad appeal -- both bands would've most likely been consistent FM staples and stadium-fillers a decade or two earlier -- and High Violet marks the point when the resignation overtakes and subsumes them. These are sullen anthems of minor-key life, but they are not hopeless or disgusted, they're agonized with the beauty of their own devastation. Without being actively miserable, the record illustrates a complicated adult world through morose, drunken free association that hides a surprising catchiness and ethereal beauty. And put simply, it's among the most curiously addictive of modern rock albums, vaguely suggesting the subtlety and sophistication of R.E.M., early Van Morrison and Broken Social Scene while actually sounding like none of the above.
The record opens with a prelude: "Terrible Love," an unfinished-sounding ragged setting of the stage. But it really begins with the shaky, harrowing introduction of "Sorrow," which reads like a torn-page narrative of someone's life story about being perpetually left behind, and dares to hinge on something as straightforward as "I don't want to get over you." Matt Berninger's vocals, selectively double and triple tracked in unpredictable patterns, have a weathered quality that simultaneously possesses morose, distancing beauty and a warmth large enough to sleep in. Indeed, as the band files behind him with impeccable precision, constantly focusing their efforts to preserve mood and align perfectly with the demands of each given song and the album as a whole (even the angry freakout that opens "Little Faith" is muted), Berninger's voice provides the narrative of the album. There's much stillness and despair but the occasional creeping in of romance, even when he's reciting absurdities like "we'll play nuns versus priests until somebody wins." On "Runaway," he lets the internal drama sprawl out fully and the result is practically Americana, with space for a U2-like buildup but too much mystery to really comply with such convention; and his most eclectic performance on a single song, "Conversation 16," is so controlled that his slightly fevered, confessional repetition of the line "I'm evil" carries more weight thanks to its placement near the end of the album than it would otherwise, just because it shows some willingness to depart from his catatonia. But that song is also quintessential High Violet: its muscular, monochromatic sadness; the intensity of the burned-out, unstated love seemingly at the core of it all ("you're the only thing I ever want anymore"); and the incongruous choral backing vocals of Sufjan Stevens to further the illusion of the bottom falling out of everything.
Yet the National seem reluctant to forecast any such broad, strong movements and transformations, at least consistently. The album's best songs are often propulsive and improbably pleasurable, but also unerring in their tension: never quite exploding, never quite hesitating. Once you've heard "Anyone's Ghost" hundreds of times you can hear that the bridge is written as menacing, and you notice how elaborate the buried strings and voices are behind Berninger's affected, tortured voice, but it's as though they're hiding it behind a thick, foggy veneer -- which makes it all the more impressive how its brilliant fury comes through immediately as a kind of miracle, its intricate construction all but invisible. Haunting as it is, "Afraid of Everyone" is rock music -- but its powerful drums and largeness are like a transparency being placed over the balladry, its cathartic fist-pumping hooks designed for the introverted who'd never dare pump their fists for anything. And the record's two signature songs, nestled consecutively at the center, are as remarkable in their reticence for grandstanding as in the magic of their frozen-in-time moment. "Bloodbuzz Ohio" approaches mastery in the arrangement of its simple three-chord structure -- you've seldom heard such emotional drumming, thanks to Bryan Devendorf -- and in the way that its beautifully vague lyrics are so knowingly sung and written like a "Kanga Roo" for the Great Recession, its pauses audible dips into confusion -- "Lay my head on the hood of your car, I / take it too far"; "I never married / but Ohio don't remember me." (Though, as every review of this album has pointed out, there's nothing at all vague about "I still owe money to the money to the money I owe / the floors are falling out from everybody I know," maybe the defining line of the decade.) And sulking never felt so celebratory, so communal. The tinkling "Lemonworld" is slightly more singular and personal ("I was a comfortable kid, but I don't think about it much anymore"), and again, it's a long time before you pause from appreciating it long enough to understand how it plays you with the unexpected drop to minor key after the cloudy glory of the verses.
High Violet constantly suggests that the National could easily be a million-selling, non-alternative outfit delivering the goods to a huge and disparate part of the population, and some of its power is less in how it defies that -- because it doesn't always do so, and doesn't necessarily indicate that they intentionally want to -- than in how it locates the potential for personal expression in a universal form. "England," after all, is probably the most conventional arena rock song on the record, a full-on baroque beauty that opens up at decisive, carefully engineered moments, but I can't hear it without thinking of my then-girlfriend and now-wife singing along to it, to the point that it sounds incomplete without her voice. But that's me -- and I'm one of the hypothetical people having a private moment in some hypothetical huge crowd at a show-ending encore of the album-ending "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," an unabashed -- if blackened -- singalong that reaches its zenith with "all the very best of us string ourselves up for love," as wise a portrait of self-destruction and/or the meaning of life as any. Since High Violet the National have continued to release extraordinary music, to be grouchy and difficult to read, and to live life as an atypically successful workhorse band, but eight years down the line this record is still singular as an illustration of its time and -- even though we may already look back on its very different flavor with immense fondness -- the sense back then that we were collectively slipping into some sort of an ether, which we were. It accomplishes all this while asserting itself cogently enough to attain what in indie rock constitutes mass appeal, and the band makes this sound easy... which, the closer you listen, the more you know it absolutely was not.