With The National’s fifth studio album comes the band’s third masterpiece. High Violet can be an inaccessible, dark mess yet beautiful and simple all the same. The Ohio-formed five-piece, as if they weren’t grown-up enough before, have matured; the jangly melancholia of previous albums Alligator and Boxer returns but it has been made richer, stranger and sometimes even sinister.
The band use a wide range of different instruments, the standard guitars are supplemented by horns, strings and piano. However, the way the tracks have been put together is odd. The instruments all remain quite low in the mix and it can take several listens before you can hear everything that is going on in a song. The technique is somewhat hit and miss; the tracks are real growers as you gradually discover all the little hooks hidden behind the wall of sound but some, particularly opener ‘Terrible Love’, sound muddy and unclear on first listen. However, perseverance cannot be more highly recommended.
Lyrically, High Violet can be bizarre but also imaginative and unpretentious. Matt Berniger’s deep baritone rumbles along through the songs; you couldn’t call his voice brilliant but it’s engaging and you’d be surprised how many times it’ll make you think ‘wow’ as you listen to the album. Drummer Bryan Devandorf deserves special mention, delivering a thunderous backing to otherwise subtle music. Though hardly a prized title, Devandorf could easily be argued to be the best drummer in Indie at the moment.
‘Conversation 16’ is a particular highlight, some insane lyrics (“I was afraid/I’d eat your brains”) contribute to its menacing feel but the horns, oohs and ahs which are laced over the song’s four shimmering minutes make it a compelling listen. ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ and ‘Afraid of Everyone’ also impress.
As a band, The National have certainly come a long way since their self-titled debut album. They’ve matured, found their sound and found their audience, and High Violet stands as a testament to this.
Overall the album probably won’t win The National many new fans, but it’s impressive stuff if you like your indie unashamedly unhappy and delightfully thoughtful. An album for dark nights rather than sunny days.