On closing song, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” Matt Berninger sings about moving out and getting on with your life and how it’s the “same small world, at your heels.” It documents how The National’s fifth album, High Violet, isn’t so much about the progress we’re making but more about coping with your feelings and desires and trying to figure all of them out. For the New York band, originally from Ohio, everything has always been about blurring the lines between the right and wrong, between what we think is good and what is really bad and they’ve done so with an amazing amount of musicianship. If Boxer was their breakthrough, that finally got people to recognize them, High Violet is the exemplary second brother, another album that goes straight for the heart and hits you in the throat.
And the motifs and themes that cloud the music on High Violet are no different from what they’ve presented before. From the outset, with the muddy production of “Terrible Love,” Berninger continues to detail the hopelessness we feel in watching someone we love throw their lives away. Maybe they don’t necessarily feel that anything is wrong but the spider is cunning and sly, and while they weave the web of destruction, all we can do is watch. It’s a startling way to start an album from a band that is mostly known for their deep toned singer and unmatched drummer, but as the music swells and grows to a cascading crescendo; it’s the perfect epitome of the crashing world around us.
This isn’t your everyday, normal rock band that is out there singing about the latest girl they picked up or whatever crazy adventures last night brought out. No, instead you have a band poignantly hitting the most relative and most telling problems and dilemmas we face in our lives by sharing their own agendas. And even when they sing about women, as they do on the flourishing “Sorrow,” it’s done through magnificent words that carry out a true bitterness in heartbreak. One song later, on “Anyone’s Ghost,” we have a song about finding the one you love only to realize that she simply cannot love you the way you love her. The rhythm section on the latter is astounding, the strings on the former are utterly fantastic and the words on each are grippingly heartrending; we can all connect when the entire band sings, “But I don’t want anybody else.”
Furthermore, the challenges of a despondent life continue: the thought of returning home and realizing that instead of focusing on the love that’s still there, you think of the uncomfortable feelings it brings up; the privileged feeling of being in college and maintaining a certain status and still, wondering what it is that we are exactly doing in war; and that’s just on the one-two punch of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Lemonworld.” The two are nestled in the heart of the album where they can comfortably rest against the backdrop of colors. And these colors – the violets, the reds, the blues, about how “we leave the silver city because all the silver girls give us black dreams” – appear all over the album.
The band is clearly highlighting how our lives are these black and white pictures with some gray sprinkled in and in the end, we’re fortunate if any color can find a way to break on through. When you open the vinyl edition, you find the band solemnly looking towards the camera with downtrodden faces and with nothing but the grayscale of their lives to support them. On “Conversation 16,” with the drums pounding behind, with the rest of the band singing in unison, with the music stirring towards a glorious opening, Berninger sings, “I was afraid, I’d eat your brains.” It’s not that all hope is lost but instead, they’ve hit on what really happens when you’re transitioning in your life; the mundane lives we lead, the everyday tear that we put our bodies and minds through and in the end, we’re worried about turning into zombies.
This is still that same subtle beauty that has made The National one of the best bands currently making music: they’re still referring to the same premise they’ve mastered before – bringing up ‘runners,’ living the city life, whether it’s in New York or Los Angeles, hoping that your old friends are fine (wherever they are now,) and again, how she’ll always haunt our dreams and quickly turn them into nightmares – they’ve packed the album with word after word of poignant storytelling. It’s going to get much better as time passes (can you imagine how good this will sound in the gloomy days of fall?) but for what High Violet has set out to do, I can’t imagine what else you’d want from a band: it’s exceptionally crafted, it’s gorgeously composed and it’s remarkably rendered by a band that might just be the very best we have today.
“Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National