The National were always beginning. At least, that’s how it felt for over half of their career; at least, that was the story that kept getting told. First, there were those early years, figuring out how to be a band on their self-titled 2001 debut and 2003’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. Then, they really began on 2005’s Alligator, the album where their sound became more realized and focused, the one that began to generate indie world buzz. But then, they really began on Boxer, the 2007 followup that brought them just a bit more attention and adoration, when the band became the version of themselves they had always been moving towards, when they truly came into their own. This narrative didn’t go away for a while — in 2013, they really began yet again, when Trouble Will Find Me elevated them to their current standing, indie luminaries capable of filling an arena or sitting at the very top of a festival poster.
But in the middle was High Violet, arriving 10 years ago this Sunday. In many ways, this is actually, truly, where the National began — at least in terms of how we think of the National today. If a generation of indie acts cohered in 2008 and 2009 as they released many of their landmark albums, 2010 and 2011 was when the few who would become truly generation-defining artists transcended their origins. In the summer of 2010, Arcade Fire would release The Suburbs, which would somewhat shockingly earn them an Album Of The Year Grammy; in 2011, Bon Iver would release their self-titled reboot and St. Vincent would transform on Strange Mercy, each album kicking off each artist’s ascendence in full. High Violet was the National’s moment in all of this. It sounded like a coronation.
High Violet is also arguably the last time the National significantly transformed between albums. This is not to disparage what came later: Trouble Will Find Me refined formulas put forth here, while Sleep Well Beast started to blur the edges of their music with slight electronic experimentation. But whether in our growing familiarity with the band, or in the way that bands establish patterns as they solidify their strengths, much of the National’s output over the ’10s was, always, recognizably the National. Much of that is rooted in the turning point of High Violet, the moment when the National took what they’d built on Alligator and Boxer and widened the scope into a grand, literary, moody, sardonic brand of arena rock for a disenchanted generation.
“We wanted to be a big band,” Matt Berninger told the NME in a recent 10-year retrospective on High Violet. “We wanted to reach everybody.” Perhaps there was some sense that the band was at a crux, where they could decide to seize some mantle. They had all the experiences of the Boxer era to work off of, including advice given by Michael Stipe during the 2008 tour where the National opened for R.E.M. He challenged them: “Why don’t you guys just write a pop song?”
The National didn’t quite do that, at least not in the sense that Stipe was talking about. But around the time of High Violet, they did spend plenty of time talking about their “grower” reputation and the idea that High Violet was more immediate and direct. Just as Boxer reacted to Alligator, so too did High Violet react to Boxer. After the pristine, claustrophobic beauty and discomfiting air of Boxer, High Violet opened their sound up — to looser and more frayed edges, to songs that would prove worthy singalongs in massive crowds. The National’s best and most quintessential compositions are scattered throughout their catalog, but there was a certain mold they found with High Violet and held onto after. They learned how to be anthemic, but they learned how to do that with a contemporary language all too cognizant of how you needed to fight to reclaim wonder in the trenches of everyday 21st century life.
At the time, as Berninger kept name-checking the Strokes, you could imagine a “more straightforward” National album where they delved fully into the punchy rock songs they were always capable of. With “So Far Around The Bend” — their contribution to the 2009 compilation Dark Was The Night that helped codify the new indie guard of the era — you could imagine a poppier National album that remained autumnal but grew ever so breezier, just a bit lighter on its feet. High Violet wasn’t any of those things. It was like a bright, simmering storm of an album, with more allowances for catharsis than on Boxer but still guided by artier songwriting and aesthetic decisions. These were anthems made for, and by, people raised to be skeptical of anthems.
The band didn’t shy away from discussing the difficulty of their evolutions. The sessions for Boxer were infamously fraught, almost destroying the band; while rolling out High Violet, they were able to laugh it off a bit, suggesting this new album still had its trials but at least it was better than what had come before. But with the band’s already increased visibility and tendency to tinker with songs endlessly, you could watch a bit of High Violet’s genesis openly, whether in early interviews or catching nascent versions of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” “Runaway,” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” onstage. Some songs mutated constantly, with “Lemonworld” notably going through dozens of iterations.
But even if you were a super fan paying close attention to every little hint dropped in the years following Boxer, the eventual sound of High Violet was still striking. The National partially remade themselves. If Boxer completed their first arc — concluding with a sound that perfectly captured the kind of numb, nagging anxieties of listless young professionals in post-9/11 America while beginning to establish the band’s longterm concerns — High Violet exploded and recolored it all. The album had a muscular, intricate haze to it. It sounded big and ambitious, shedding the group’s associations with New York retro-rock scenes and baroque Brooklyn chamber-pop.
Once more, the National adopted a style that felt like a modern condition. While making the album, Berninger encouraged the Dessner twins to move away from their signature interlocking guitar arpeggios, urging them to chase a sound termed “loose wool” and “hot tar.” The album version of “Terrible Love” epitomized it — a warped, humid guitar part from Aaron setting the stage for the guttural alarm opening of “Little Faith,” the distorted maelstrom closing “Afraid Of Everyone,” the swampy strums of “Lemonworld.” But at the same time, High Violet furthered the ornate orchestration of Boxer. Sufjan Stevens and Richard Reed Parry and Justin Vernon stopped by to provide layered background vocals, and Bryce Dessner began to make his presence more known by bringing arrangements that didn’t so much embellish National material as it intertwined with each song’s DNA.
The cumulative result was an album that felt dense, but also bold; an album that could feel more like a head fog than the National’s preceding work, but that had vivid, specific, sometimes surrealist imagery popping up throughout: “You said I came close/ As anyone’s come/ To live underwater/ For more than a month” in “Anyone’s Ghost,” the creepy-quirky “I was afraid/ I’d eat your brains” in “Conversation 16,” the list goes on. And while the National had until this point made their name at cataloguing the uninteresting quotidian struggles of early adulthood, High Violet was also something of a turning point spiritually — trying to reach more people, with songs that balanced certain changes in the lives of the band members with increasingly universal feelings of ennui and drift.
Berninger had become a father, and while he didn’t want to dwell on it, you can feel a different level of existential concern creeping into the apocalyptic mood of “Afraid Of Everyone.” Elsewhere, he still had plenty of gripping depictions of vanishing youth and the weight of our decisions (or lack thereof) — the suggested distance between us in “England,” the louche getaway fantasy of “Lemonworld.” But something that would only become more significant on later National albums began to take hold here: Many of the band’s ideas were still derived from a kind of searching perspective, but increasingly there was less time to spend mulling over who you would’ve rather become and more of a need to reckon with the fragments and complications of your life and how they would trickle down into the world you leave behind for others.
Later on, this would manifest as the interplay between marital strife and a foreboding global atmosphere on Sleep Well Beast, but you don’t get there without High Violet, the moment when the National grappled with where they were from, and where home would be. While the band had been plugged into a cresting moment of New York music, that era was ending. Soon there would be no clear nucleus in the rock music world, soon a few old perceptions of New York would cede to some new ones, and soon the National themselves would scatter, none of them living in New York City full-time anymore.
Berninger wound up relocating to Los Angeles, and while he still mulls over the tides and eras of New York life in his lyrics from time to time, High Violet was an album that felt at war with the life the band had fought to build for themselves in that city, in that era. In “Anyone’s Ghost,” his narrator goes out “to walk through the Manhattan valleys of the dead.” In “Little Faith,” they’re stuck in New York and waiting for Radio City to sink; in “Lemonworld,” he’s just grateful for an excuse to leave for the weekend because “Livin’ and dyin’ in New York, it means nothing to me.”
Even the comparably vague Silver City escape plan in “Conversation 16″ finds people reaching for an exodus. Meanwhile, he’s dreaming of Los Angeles cathedrals in a song called “England.” The whole thing sounds like someone wrestling with the end of one chapter of their lives, or with the idea that they finally made it to that mythic place where things were supposed to happen — and maybe they did, and it still wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. There’s a sense of impending displacement, of another coast to flee to.
The National were a New York band, but they were an Ohio band, too. They were always a Midwestern, small-town, American rock band. And the idea that those small-town guys found themselves in New York trying to actualize dreams in the era of 9/11 and recessions, in a time where the city was culturally vibrant but still weighed down by a more romantic history, is also distinctly American — and distinctly 21st century. They provided the sound for an era in which you could be constantly disappointed in a reality that didn’t live up to the pictures you carried in your head.
High Violet was the album where all of that crashed together, and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” was the song that encapsulated all of it by simply being about the other place, the place we came from. It’s hard to imagine that near enough to the release of the album, the band considered taking the song off entirely; now, it lives on not only as the centerpiece of High Violet, but perhaps the National’s best song. Propelled by Bryan Devendorf’s drums, the whole thing has only allusive lyrics, but feels like a desperate fever dream of home and a person’s distance from it. Carried back by a swarm of bees, unremembered by where you came from, mixed with the strange intimate moment of laying your head on the hood of a friend or lover’s car. “I still owe money/ To the money/ To the money I owe,” Berninger sings. And then, maybe the mission statement to sum up the entirety of the National’s work, how they have depicted our time: “The floors are falling out from everybody I know.”
It’s a song about home and how it slides out of familiarity, how you can go back to where you came from and feel as if you’re in a foreign country; your movements and speech don’t make sense there anymore. But it’s also a song about depletion and grasping for any sense of stability and hope. There’s no better distillation of where the National were at during High Violet: a song about passing back through one place, chronology and geography scrambled as you move from one era of your life into the past and back around again, venturing into an unplotted and unsteady future. It’s about Ohio, but it’s also about New York; it’s about angst that is sewn into your being from childhood and the new lives you can build for yourself, where the angst follows but becomes illegible. It’s the song the National were meant to write: a rallying cry for the world-weary, that anthem for the skeptics.
That’s the interesting tension of High Violet: It’s the moment where aspects of the National’s personality become permanent, but it’s also an identity crisis. It’s as confident an album as they’ve ever made, perhaps the clearest instance where they went for it, but all of that ambition is battling against the tenuous moments that populate these songs. Everything about the album is crucial to their career: Greeted with fanfare and widespread acclaim, High Violet did what it intended. The National got bigger — bigger than anyone would’ve plausibly thought even just a couple years beforehand.
That metric isn’t just about career narratives and growing fanbases. It was about the very sound of the band: Rather than abandoning the carefully observed experiences and characters that always fueled their songs, the National rendered them in widescreen. The style the National adopted this past decade was heavy and textured, but it also allowed for a different kind of release — an older, wizened version than the wild-eyed outbursts in their more ragged early days. For years people missed the humor and the warmth in the National’s work, reducing them to a supposed ever-present gloom. High Violet still had its fair share of unanswered questions. But now, more than ever before — in the surging “Terrible Love,” the gorgeous and patient build of “England,” the unrelenting momentum of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” — they were starting to find answers.
It wasn’t just about past failures and current dead ends anymore. It was about what else we’re going to make with the time we have here and the pieces in front of us. There would be more twists and turns in the songs that would follow, but in the world of the National, High Violet looked something like the start of a resolution. A decision to, at the very least, recognize you can shed where you came from and where you just were. You can choose new homes over and over; you can become new versions of yourself. They themselves were doing that, in real time. The National were beginning — they were about to leave behind everything in their story so far, and they were about to tell a new one.