By David M. Goldstein | 19 May 2010
In New York City at least, the release of the new National record has been, to steal from the Thorntons, kinda like a big deal. Manhattan’s Other Music, one of the borough’s last examples of a large indie record store, devoted an entire display rack to the National, featuring several copies of High Violet in addition to their previous four albums. An empty space next to the store has been turned into the “High Violet Annex” for a week, featuring musical acts curated by the band. They even made the cover of this week’s Village Voice—a rare event reserved for only the buzziest of NYC buzz bands (remember the Hold Steady on the eve of their second album?). And frankly, in an era where proper release dates serve as little more than a benchmark from which to estimate Internet leaks, this circa-1995 kind of hype is fucking refreshing.
Part of this likely stems from the fact that frontman Matthew Berninger and the brothers Dessner and Devendorf are hometown heroes, hailing from Brooklyn (by way of Cincinnati). But in only two records they’ve ascended from local curiosity to nationwide (pun unavoidable) juggernaut; Boxer (2007) and Alligator (2005) comprised a pair of moody, neo-Leonard Cohen epics appealing to late twenty- and thirty-something hipsters (Is it too early still to not have to describe a hipster as “urban”?) too young (or unborn) to have appreciated the man in his prime. Coincidentally, the National are all in their mid- to late-30s with serious relationships—and in Berninger’s case: children—and so can tune into their prime audience effortlessly. That the majority of Berninger’s lyrics involve inner city yuppies slowly coming to grips with newfound responsibilities such as fatherhood, fidelity, and the boss’s expectations, while generally spending their lives quietly scared shitless, should come as no surprise.
Appropriately, I am thirty, recently married, and with a graduate degree that to this point has yielded far more debt than riches. So there’s a certain pleasure to be taken from a guy brooding about the perils of domesticity and a certain joy to be had in simply staying home on a Friday night—and their certainty what makes them so appealing. Even so, Berninger’s lyrics often hit uncomfortably close to home. The emphasis here is on how much brooding this record goes through, and just like label mates the New Pornographers sound awkward making sad sound, happiness really isn’t the National’s strong suit. Which in turn leads their detractors to tag them as humorless killjoys, a derision easily debunked by seeing them live or reading any one of their many press interviews. They’re pretty normal dudes who’ve happened to hit on a winning formula: expertly produced melancholy shot through Berninger’s rich baritone.
As a recent New York Times article made a little too clear, these guys take to the recording studio sternly, seriously, and the result is one lushly orchestrated gem upon one lushly orchestrated gem, each managing, despite the abundance of instrumentation, to come off as more subtle than showy. As on Boxer, Bryan Devendorf’s martial drumming remains the prime element in the mix, and High Violet is essentially the best sounding National record since their last one, with a newfound density that writes off Alligator as tinny in retrospect. Just try to listen to the angelic horn bleats and jaw-dropping crescendos of career high-water mark “England” without coming to the realization that Arcade Fire have been fucking lapped. Granted, the penultimate track on recent National albums (i.e. “City Middle” and “Ada”) has always been a guaranteed money shot, but I’ll be surprised if I hear a more head-shakingly awesome song than “England” this year, and cannot wait to see the band attempt to pull it off live. Of course, some of the credit must go to Peter Katsis, their longtime producer—let’s call him Bridgeport, Connecticut’s answer to Nigel Godrich.
But if “England” is the type of fanfare I’d anticipate upon reaching to the pearly gates, well, closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” is more of a soundtrack for crossing the River Styx. A sea shanty funeral march with string arrangements courtesy of Nico Mulhy, it’s an excellent song on its own merits, if a ridiculously grim sendoff. And if High Violet has a flaw, it’s that even by the National’s sad sack standards, its bleakness is considerable. The one or two bursts of levity that used to inject some needed optimism into prior albums, like Alligator‘s “All the Wine” and “Lit Up” or Boxer’s “Apartment Story,” are conspicuously absent in favor of sustained darkness and paranoia; not unlike a drunken, one am stumble through the leafy Prospect Heights neighborhood Berninger calls home.
Though High Violet sometimes (“Lemonworld,” cough) veers dangerously close to self-parody, the National have crafted something exceptional: a massive, dynamic album that still makes good on the National’s devotion to meticulous production and a sound they’ve kept simple and distinctive for a decade. It also contains the strongest side B of their career, with the end run from “Runaway” to “Vanderlyle” being, to quote fellow CMG scribe and National obsessive David Greenwald, “fire.” I have no other way to express it: the National are in a class of their own, and High Violet is only going to further their reputation. Try to understand—if the National hailed from your city, you’d be proud too.