The National takes standard guitar-led indie and take it to the next level; levelling instruments, generating melody from vocals, and pace from percussion. Lead singer Matt Berninger is a vocalist of the ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ variety - always in command but letting the band provide harmonies on request.
At the centre of High Violet is the masterful Bloodbuzz Ohio. A great choice for the first single, the song is an expertly crafted combination of musical arrangement, drums and melody. Berninger provides a commanding Nick Cave baritone worthy of the brilliant lyrics: ‘I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees’ and ‘I never thought about love when I thought about home’. More understated but arguably better, Runaway is a work of beauty. Reminiscent of Gordon Lightfoot, Berninger is again superb: ‘what makes you think I enjoy being lead to the flood?’ is a great line, as is the simple motto: ‘we don’t bleed when we don’t fight’, each paired with exquisite arrangement, fragile guitars and subtle drums. In the second half an elegant brass section is introduced and slowly builds.
Conversation 16 completes a wonderful trio of songs. The best writing on the album, and bittersweet juxtaposition of nasty words set to angelic music, it is another masterpiece. This is followed by the reminiscent storytelling and stadium-bound England (‘you must be loving your life in the rain’ sums it up perfectly). This quality washes through the entire album, from the muddy guitars and soft harmonies of opener Terrible Love, which appears to start halfway through and feels more like a big finale than an introduction, to the wonderfully intriguing ’nuns versus priests’ child-like game of Little Faith with drum, bass and string combination. The music rarely falters. Only the rambling Lemonworld and the odd mid-tempo closer Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks let the side down.
High Violet is a truly beautiful album, brilliantly written and executed. The song writing duo of Berninger and Aaron Dessner with contributions from the band prove that The National are as workmanlike as they are proficient. And they are helped along the way by an equally proficient group of ‘hired help’ including Sufjan Stevens who provides harmonium and vocals on Afraid of Everyone. Always poetic, deep and often uplifting, in spite of a dour demeanour, the band place themselves on the right side of seriousness and melancholy thanks to brilliant arrangements and a clear positive sound. Even in its more sedate moments, the music is both intimate and engaging. This alone makes High Violet The National’s most accomplished album and completes a wonderful trio of records.