The National - High Violet

We talk a lot about “anticipation” when it comes to new releases, but it feels like folks have been awaiting the National’s High Violet with a special excitement, one that’s picked up with each leaked (or officially released) track or live performance. The band’s longer, slower climb from their 2001 self-titled debut to their fifth album has been steady and snowballing, too — Over the past decade, Matt Berninger, Aaron And Bryce Dessner, and Bryan and Scott Devendorf have refined and expanded their sound without losing their way or succumbing to of-the-moment aesthetic/genre trends. That hard, careful work has given the band a sturdy assuredness, even when Berninger’s singing about being a mess.At this point, the Cleveland paeon “Bluzzbood Ohio” feels like an old friend, but it was that Fallon performance of “Terrible Love” that seemed to especially amp folks up for the new material. The first official post-”Bloodbuzz”/”Terrible Love” teaser was the Sufjan-guesting “Afraid Of Everyone,” a ghostly and brassy slow-builder. For folks who go to live shows (or watch live shows on their computers), though, you also probably caught live clips of “Sorrow,” “Little Faith,” and “Anyone’s Ghost” then a couple more of “Afraid Of Everyone” and “Conversation 16.″

All of this to say, even without sitting down to listen to the album, you should probably already know these new songs have more dramatic upswing than Boxer. Something that made that album so great was its refusal to succumb to a “Mr. November”-style Matt-yells song that might fuck-up the overall mood. That said, on High Violet they’ve injected “Mr. November”’s adrenaline into the compositions via the instrumentation, without Matt having to raise his voice. That, and the truly anthemic moments appear via stronger vocal melodies, even when whispered.

It opens with the crescendo-filled “Terrible Love,” a song that illustrates this idea perfectly, then moves to “Sorrow.” Live, Padma Newsome provides the haunting background vocals. On record its some blend of Aaron Dessner, Marla Hansen, and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry (who also provides guitar here and elsewhere). That’s par for the High Violet course: Each track has layers of density (“Sorrow” features clarinet, cello, viola, violin, clarinet, piano, electronics, etc.) but the sounds blend smoothly and don’t feel overdone.

And there are those guests: Sufjan Stevens provides background vocals and harmonium to the previously mentioned “Afraid Of Everyone,” Justin Vernon sings on closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” Doveman brought along a truckload of instruments, Nico Muhly did the orchestration for “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” and “Lemonworld,” etc. But there are never too many cooks.

For instance, standout “Runaway”’s a patient five-and-a-half-minute slow-builder we first heard almost a year ago (with “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”). It’s spacious and lush. It builds upon a simple drum pulse and guitar line to a soaring background horn/string section, adding one element at a time to Berninger’s painterly storyline and its emphatic repetitions: “I won’t be no runaway, / ’cause I won’t run,” “What makes you think I enjoy being led to the flood / We’ve got another thing coming undone / And it’s taking us over,” etc. It doesn’t need a final explosion for you to “throw your arms in the air.” Even if that’s not the way he meant it.

It’s tough calling something a standout —  there isn’t a dud. High Violet swims fluidly from start to finish. You get constant drives that pause mid-flight (“Conversation 16″), downcast sing-along anthems about feelings of emptiness (“Anyone’s Ghost”), subtly orchestrated pop gems (“Lemonworld,” “England,” etc.), all of Berninger’s great lines: Setting fires and wishing for Radio City to sink while pretty girls get sucked into the sky and someone plays Nuns vs. Priests … all in the hopes of getting some kicks. You and your sister’s “Lemonworld.” Living on coffee and flowers (and the brain-eating zombies) in “Conversation 16.” “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”’s rising waters, sinking ship: “All the very best of us / String ourselves up for the…” Etc, etc.

We could go on, but it makes more sense to get to the point: It’s hard finding fault with High Violet. Like the band that created it, it’s an album that’s built to last. Start playing it on repeat to test our thesis.

High Violet is out 5/11 via 4AD.

Comments (74)
  1. I agree guys, the album is special. It’s gonna be high on my year-end list. If not at the very top.

  2. The only disappointment so far is the botched production job on “Terrible Love”. When they played it on Fallon, I thought it would become one of the band’s most anthemic songs. As it is on the album, it’s sort of an extended intro. However, not enough can be said about this album’s second half: “Runaway” has one of the most gorgeous vocal melodies Berninger’s ever sung.

    • I completely agree. What happened to this song? It sounds 100x better on Fallon. I was hoping that maybe the version I heard was a rough mix. The second half of the album is amazing though. Conversation 16 gives me serious chills.

      • i think it is a rough mix. my understanding is that the leak circulating around right now is of a particularly shitty quality, and that the official stream coming out on friday should sound much better. i certainly hope that’s the case, because the terrible love we all just heard – while a fantastic song – sounds, well, terrible.

        sorry, i couldn’t help myself.

        • oh yeah, and BUY THE ALBUM, if you can. i’m going to.

        • Just saw this from an interview on Drowned in Sound:

          It was throwing off these weird harmonics so I called it ‘Loose wool’ and sent it to Matt and he loved it. He said “now that is ‘loose wool’, that ‘wurh-wurh-wurh-wurh’ noise”. And that became ‘Terrible Love’. Actually, ‘Terrible Love’ on the record is the demo version. I was looping myself playing and on the record it’s a weirder song than it is live because there are some pitches and some seconds layered into it that are a bit odder. But once we’d figured that out it did start to become something and we were then looking for ways of playing the guitar that were outside of our usual vocabulary and that might be a little more spontaneous, rougher, atmospheric and weirder.

          So that is that. Too bad.

          • Boo. It seriously sounds like they recorded this in somebody’s basement and didn’t do any mixing to it at all. Definitely leaves a bad taste in your mouth right off the bat.

            That being said, Bloodbuzz Ohio and Afraid of Everyone have me interested enough to keep going.

          • damn. that’s disappointing. bryan devendorf’s drumming sounded so much more massive on fallon. oh well, can’t complain too much about an album of this caliber.

          • After repeated listens, I’m starting to change my mind. It’s growing on me. I think the Fallon version of the song gave me a very specific expectation, and the album version threw me. Hell, maybe the official release will have something closer to the Fallon version. Either way, I’m in.

            Moving away from Terrible Love for a moment, this record is hella good. I can’t stop listening to it. Conversation 16 is beautiful.

      • yea terrible love really disappointed.
        i think if i didn’t see the fallon version i might’ve liked it
        but having seen that performance and knowing what the song could be,
        the song just kills me every time i hear it
        i was banking on them putting a different version of it on the cd… i guess that’s not happening either.

        but i guess that’s what we have live shows for!

    • I disagree completely. It’s not “botched” production. From what I can tell, they chose to avoid big hi-fi drumming on Terrible Love, but it’s still clear even in the bad leak version I have what’s going on. It hits incredibly hard and ramps up to ear splitting distortion at the end on purpose. It’s a bold start. It has this hazey my bloody valentine meets velvet underground feeling that I love. My favorites so far on the record are Terrible Love, Runaway, Conversation 16, England and Vanderlyle. But I agree with the review, there doesn’t seem to be a dud. I like this production better than Boxer. It’s less precious which I think is a very good thing.

      • I disagree too. I love the murkiness beneath all the other really cleanly produced parts (especially on the first piano drop). It’s something I only really started to love when I started listening to this on headphones though.

  3. Love the NSFW ads all over today, guys.

  4. woozefa  |   Posted on Apr 20th, 2010 +2

    i cannot cannot cannot get enough of ‘afraid of everyone’ right now. damn, this is an amazing song.

  5. I think this evaluation is caught up in the hype – there are some good songs here but they’re buried under some pretty messy production, and it’s quite tedious to listen to that sort of mess all the way through – they’ve lost a lot of their musicality in the mix, and it’s a crying shame.

    I think so few albums are well produced now people are forgetting what they sound like…

  6. To be fair this is based on the leak but in my long experience, the leaks are almsot always pretty good matches for the final release despite apologists always sayings its the leak….

  7. this record is great. im not sure what else to say.

  8. i love the album, but “terrible love” sticks out so badly because of the production! i understand that they’re trying something different with the guitars, and thats cool – no problem there, but the drums sound so much different than they do on the rest of the album. i don’t get it. very rough and really low in the mix, and it totally takes away from what the could be.
    so, if the shit-drums were intentional, i say bad idea, but thats just my opinion. i really do love the rest of the album though, i was just looking forward to the album version of that particular song and was totally disappointed.

    • also hearing the same thing going on in “lemonworld”… hopefully its just the leak, but i guess we’ll find out

  9. am i the only one who thinks terrible love is awesome on the album? seriously, once you cast off your expectations and take the song as it is, it’s really neat. i like how the song slowly emerges from the initial fuzziness. also, the entire album is growing on me beautifully. i love that quality of the national.

  10. for everyone’s concerns about the production of ‘terrible love’ or others, i got an email from the band and they said that the leak going around has some obvious differences and they want you to “hear it in the quality that was intended.” For that to happen, they’ll be streaming the album on nytimes.com on friday. Otherwise, im just really amazed at the expanse of work this band has now at their disposal. From sad songs for dirty lovers through this most recent effort, they’ve pretty much nailed it. and there originally from cincinnati, so I think bloodbuzz could really be more about there than cleveland, not sure.

    • Yeah, while Terrible Love sounds pretty flat and noisy here, I’m confident a higher-quality rip will bring out more dimension to the song. Let’s not panic yet! Remember the shit-sounding Veckatimest leak!

      • Despite the talk about that Veck. release and subsequent, definitely better, CD, there wasn’t that much difference in the fundamentals of them – the final Veckatimest, while lovingly crafted, is still not wonderfully recorded in places, with quite a lot of murk and shadow in the mix. I’m sure one day there will be a re-master – which will not be any better but at least the record companies will extract a few more pennies from hope.

        This whole leak is relatively flat though, so here’s hoping you’re right, that the final mix will have all sort of depth this lacks and The National really deseve and need (and have had in the past with better produced albums, notably Boxer and the EPs preceeding that).

  11. yeah….so terrible love is noisy and lo-fi compared to what? coldplay? U2? its a fucking rock record. its raw and weird and cool and epic. thats the appeal of the band in the first place. sure the live version is also great, but in my opinion its good that they are different. happens with every song on other records.

    • It’s not about rock/pop/whatever – it’s about dynamics. It’s about things having depth and room to breathe, it’s about pushing the boundaries but not crossing them – hell, you’ve got ears, jsut listen. If you can’t hear this is a shit mix then …well, I don’t know. Maybe it’s me but I like good production values – and that can certainly leave some live/raw feeling in place, look at Dragonslayer for example – that’s got plenty of RAW but just massive dynamics going on compared to this….where all the good, the great, gets lost in the wash.

  12. and PS – The National don’t really ROCK, neither live nor on record. They kind of build and pulse and shimmer and envelope – but that’s a long long way from a fucking rock sound, baby.

  13. and PS – The National don’t really ROCK, neither live nor on record. They kind of build and pulse and shimmer and envelop – but that’s a long long way from a fucking rock sound, baby.

  14. I like the mix and have been a fan looooong before Boxer came out…….though I also don’t like Grizzly Bear or Animal Collective so what do I know.

    Oh and to all the old school fans out there brassland has a few copies of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers LP for sale on there website.

    • if you ask me you know something. I’m crazy about The national and I can’t understand what all the magazines and fans like about animal c. and grizzly bear. Grizzly is so fuckin sentimental and its unbelievingly featureless. AC…well its just noise for mee…

      BTW The new album is awsome and England is definetely the best track on it.

  15. I’m a huge fan, but it sounds like a seriously botched mixing / mastering job. Boxer is one of the best sounding records I’ve heard in recent memmory. I dont see how the band who made that record could think a job like this would be acceptable. They must be demos or something.

    • i dont know if i’m listening to a higher quality leak than some of you but i don’t hear problems. it sounds amazing. it’s intentionally fuzzier guitar sounds and from what i’ve read they wanted to avoid making another Boxer. i think thats something to celebrate. i have a feeling this one could grow on me and be my favorite national album.

  16. Nitpicking: The National are from Cincinnati, not Cleveland…

  17. i look fwd to hearing the stream on friday, to see if it’s better.

    am i the only one who immediately thought of the magnetic fields upon hearing the repeated “I don’t wanna get over you” on sorrow?

  18. Cmon guys, we all know that songs always sound different than live, act like you’ve seen a concert before. I for one love scuzzy sounding drunk-rock and that’s what the National do best. You’ll end up loving “Terrible Love” and wonder why you ever hated on the album version.

  19. *different live

  20. the more people that shit on terrible love the more i want to hear this album. gd i love the national.

  21. So excited for this album. I am holding out for the release date to hear it. But it sounds like it doesnt dissapoint!

  22. “England” is STUNNING.

  23. First time around listening to it and all I have to say is “Wow”.

  24. ok, i’m sorry, but i listen to terrible love because of all the comments here, and i have to say that it is incredible. for such a clean record that boxer was, a fan should want a track like this, where it sounds like bryce is just fucking with his amp right in your face. just my opinion.

  25. FYI there seems to be a higher quality leak floating around now. Word is that it sounds much better.

  26. This is one seriously cool progression, from Alligator to Boxer to … at least the buzz here. The leaks and at least the Fallon “TL” have been … propulsive. My only fear is that listening to this album constantly will make the summer go too fast!

  27. ddogdunit  |   Posted on Apr 21st, 2010 0

    i disagree about the duds statement. anybody notice “lemon world” is a poor man’s “slow show”? EXACT same chord progression and tempo, just very different production.

  28. this Terrible Love works as an opener. i like that this song has two different lives. it’s nice to see another side of this song.

  29. While I do agree with this review, I love the album, I feel like Stereogum is doing too many “premature evaluations”. Notice how there have been like four in the last week and they are the most things commented on? I don’t want Stereogum to become pitchfork…

    • I’d figure Premature Evaluations is working overtime lately as A LOT of major albums are leaking all around the same time – this, New Pornographers, LCD Soundsytem, Hold Steady, Broken Social Scene and Black Keys just to name a few – day & age, natch.

      • I really hope The New Pornographers – Together gets a Premature Evaluation. Seems like they are getting shoved aside because their last one was a little underwhelming and they dont have that Brooklyn buzz. But after hearing both Together and High Violet, I’ve see myself running back to hear Together more.

  30. I’m not listening to the leak, but it’s complete torture waiting for this album to come out. I’ve never been so excited for any album in my life. I can’t wait for the stream on Friday. I just wish they were doing more tour dates, they don’t have any in Portland last time I checked.

  31. Can’t stop listening to this… even though I have several other new albums I like a lot. As others have said here already, there’s not a single weak track on the album. This one’s gonna be hard to beat this year in my book.

  32. wow, this has been the most unanimously positive thread i’ve ever seen on here… its weird. no one’s gonna make an asshole Coldplay/U2 reference?? or at least use the > sign??

  33. I really like The National overall, but disagree that this album is without any faults. This album has some decent tracks, but the production is so bad. I feel like I am listening to dense mud with Ian Curtis inspired vocals. What am I missing?

  34. I thought the writer of the NY times article put it well when he said the National had the potential to make “the great Middle American novel as music, an album for our time.” They’ve done it with High Violet.

  35. I find it Muddy and regressive. They’re channelling old school National music.

    Albums kind of Emo’ey.

    A step down from Alligator and even Boxer IMO. I hope they don’t play too much of this when I see them in May.

    I know home boy is a sad emo guy or whatever but jesus almost every song sounds like some sad sappy sucker shit.

  36. My fears were dissolved at both Richmond shows this week. Although High Violet is darker and “emo-ey,” they rock up the songs very well. Every song from the new release took a new life when they performed it – like Boxer. This band has so many layers and High Violet is the same.

  37. No album has ever affected me like this.

    This is a masterpiece.

  38. whoever commented on “England” was correct. Homework assignment: Get your good headphones, listen to the last 2:00 of that song at full blast.

    • Those bursts of horns get me every time.

    • The album version of Terrible Love was really growing on me – and then I saw them in Richmond and they encored with that epic powerhouse version we all know from Fallon (kicked up even more – rocked out a little longer at the end) and it left me wanting that version again.

      Future B-side? Please?

  39. I have resisted the urge to download the leak. I wanted to hear this pristine. So yesterday, I hooked up the computer to the big stereo, and listened twice. Once, through the headphones and reverent. The next time, over the speakers cranked to upset the neighbors. Great Rock and Roll passes both tests. High Violet aced ‘em. I remember the first time I heard OK Computer, the first time I heard Blonde on Blonde. This is that good. I came to the National party late (after Boxer was out–oh, sidebar, THANK YOU PANDORA!!!!) but I am a believer.

    This will be the soundtrack of my summer, and it sounds like it is going to be a beautiful summer.

  40. Say whatever you want about this album and its various merits but there is one thing that stands out to me. Byrce Dessner is a singular talent. Everything on these recordings revolves around him. The drums glue every single one of these days together. Probably the most tasteful drumming I’ve heard in a long time. Swoon.

    I’m not saying the other guys aren’t talented or blah blah blah but you know when John Bonham died and Zeppelin broke up. Well I feel it’d be a similar situation with these guys.

    • I agree. I’ll even upvote you. Only it’s Bryan Devendorf.

      I would like to point out that everyone in the band plays a major role. But, I’m glad Bryan gets the respect he deserves as a talented (and more importantly) creative drummer. It’s definitely unique and powerful. I was just mentioning on a different forum how his drums often make an otherwise lackluster song (Example: “Squalor Victoria”) and make it an explosive rush of energy. However, the band is more than just a drum kit. “Gospel” is one of my favorite National tracks, and it’s pretty much drum free.

  41. Great album, but it sounds really really bad. the dynamics are squashed and everything is really murky. i was hoping the sound might be improved on from boxer, but it seems to be worse.

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