Ohio's’ The National had been making soberingly cold music for more than a couple records by the time they released the classic “High Violet.” They were one of the best new bands around but with “Violet” the band elevated themselves not only into my heart, but also many many other hearts. Today’s addition to the “Albums of my Life” series, 2010’s “High Violet.
It’s difficult when an album starts so crazy strong, but with this one it really does drop like an atom band on a person’s thoughts and psyche. “Terrible Love,” which currently stands as my favorite song by the band, creaks open like a door after a funeral march, where the participants are left wondering what happened, and why life can’t always be perfect and beautiful. Berninger’s distant but full voice sails under the thickness of the track in an effortless way, but what makes the song so great for me is the incredible drumming by Bryan Devendorf. It’s purposeful and dominant, but the way the track is mixed manages to make it all empty into the whirlwind wonderfully and really helps to make the track even more thick and plentiful.
Song after song on HV has that ability. The album, which was produced by the band and mixed by Peter Katis sort of shuffles over and under the water in the heart of the ocean. Sometimes it’s clear and poignant, but other times it's full of murkiness and dread. Actually most of it is full of dread and melancholy. Who am I kidding, we’re talking about the National here.
Track two, “Sorrow” follows the tradition of super heartfelt lyrics that everyone who’s ever loved can relate to, and it manages to keep the figurative tears going after the conclusion of the first track. It’s wonderful and sad, but it continues to show the strength of the band. Track four though, ‘Little Faith,” is a remarkable song that unfortunately is rarely played live. The chaos and thickness of the opening falls right into an almost still like orchestral piece, and Matt’s voice paints a picture of a character walking through “New York and the rain’s coming down.” It’s never really takes off musically the way you think it might, but that’s where the charm of the song lies. Once again the drums are on point, but the instrumentation mvp on the track really belongs to Dessner brother’s. What Aaron and Bryce do here is elevate the emotional in the musical sense while allowing Berninger and company to put forth energy that improves the track. It’s one of the better tracks on “High Violet,” and it’s well placed in the structure and order of the record.
I’ve said this before, but the midsection of an album is where either a good album becomes amazing or where you decide to only love the first four songs. Here though, the National not only step it up to where it needs to go, but the make all the right choices on the bridge from beginning to end. “Afraid of Everyone” speaks to the loneliness and hesitancy of being in a world so cold and how you don’t want to pass over your resistance or your self alienation to your children. When Matt talks about having his “Kid on my shoulders,” I believe he’s attempting to witness the world through the eyes of his child in hopes of realizing that the world is in fact a beautiful place. From there we get the percussion based first single “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” followed by the quiet and misleading “Lemonworld.” Apparently the track is named about a drink that was created by Berninger and his sister, but it’s actually a really pretty song slightly bringing out more positive vibes in places you might not normally find them. It’s still not super chipper, but it’s closer than most of their songs.
As we head closer to the finale of the record, we’re treated to a succession of vividly deep tracks. I mean honestly these last four continue to the raise the bar of the album. Sometimes you get the impression that bands’ put the weakest tracks at the end, but in the case of this album it couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Runaway” is a lullaby for the depressed lyrically, eclipsed only by the courtly and demure horns and textures, while “Conversation 16” glistens in the sun underneath the coldness of winter. It’s a song made for oppressive cold and being forced to be outside and face your demons head on. It also speaks to me on levels of abandonment and the struggles of relationships. As someone who recently had to pick up the pieces after a breakup, this song reminds me of the struggle to put faith in the other people. Not only because it’s dangerous and difficult to trust, but also because you don’t always trust yourself to be the good person you hope to be.
“England,” the penultimate track is probably the perfect track right before the conclusion. It’s layered splendidly, and Berninger’s trademark Baritone vocals give the song a nice pop that it needs. I don't mean pop as in makes the song more upbeat and happy, but rather it adds the crucial element to a song that was one step away from being realized and seen in it’s true potential. The final track though, is just mind blowing and spectacular. “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” isn’t just the only track that could close the record, but it’s very nearly the best song on the entire record.
The chords opening the track speak to disillusionment and regret, and the vocals only continue to propel the song in the area of dismay. Berninger wins the day with the lyrics, which masterfully paint a pictures of debauchery committed only so people can truly live for a moment in time. Also the reference to the geeks always makes me think of the horrible nature of the stars of Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love.” The image “hanging from chandeliers” tells of the nature of people hell bent on destruction, while the chorus which features the lyrical gem of “As the water’s arising there’s still no surprising you.” That lyric has stayed with me for years, and it likely will continue to.
Over the course of eleven purposely done and mastered tracks the National had not only proved that they could make an album that some would argue is their best work, but the also became a band that i Will love for a long long time, especially is the music keeps on being as good as it is on “High Violet.” Thanks for reading, see you Wednesday
Landon Murray is a published writer and an avid lover of music, books and films. He's also a lover of the New Orleans Saints. He was born in 1982 and has a chainsaw tattoo on his arm.
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