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.