The National The NationalHigh Violet
A few months ago there was a revealing documentary on television. It explained how the cooling of the Earth ended up harming it as much or more than global warming, with just as much danger, although it receives less media attention than the effects of climate change. And so the chaotic days when air traffic is suspended—like the days immediately following 9/11 or the recent air catastrophe—are a real breath of fresh air for the planet’s health, relieving it and giving it a little fresh air instead of covering it with pollution. The case of Eyjafjallajokull was paradoxical, since what allowed the white sky to get that breath of air was precisely an enormous column of black smoke. Moving on to the heights that concern us here, this introduction is intended to compare the Icelandic volcano with “High Violet”, a manifestation of the same calibre of bravura. An album ( The National’s fifth) that eclipses the immaculate spheres of rock like a black tongue of lava.
The analogy can be stretched even further, because the first thing that one notices about the brand new work is the super-saturated sound of first song “Terrible Love”, a nebulous storm that gives off a blinding light. The song exactly reproduces the sound of “hot tar” that the band planned to give to this album and, yes, it is surprising that they open with it (the song is one of their darkest to date) but we're also thankful for the advice. This song warns us that the path is sharp and rocky. It doesn’t matter. We have to be willing, and to understand that all the blackness will come hand in hand with an almost sacred beauty. In fact, the impact is not unexpected, like Eyjafjallajokull. “High Violet” –the title already sounds like a delicatessen– was one of the season’s big launches, and with it, The National had to show two things: one, whether or not they would succumb to commercialism; and the other, whether they would be able to surpass such illustrious peaks as “Alligator” (2005) and “Boxer” (2007). We can now say that it is impossible to detach it from those memories and that, together, the group’s three masterpieces form a body of work of a rock band that is so big that few can match it. More frontal and perverse than “Boxer,” my no. 1 from that year, this album completes all of the previous ones, becoming the band’s most truly important album of their career so far.
Start getting used to the idea that the lyrics are hellish. Infinite sorrow and absolute sadness (also hope) about mistrust in love, responsibility towards your own, and bravery when it comes to facing the distance involved in fleeing. Uprootedness from the band’s beloved Cincinnati ( “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “England”) or singer Matt Berninger’s recent paternity - resolved in songs like “Afraid Of Everyone” and “Conversation 16” - fills the verses with a disturbing poetry pregnant with destructive fire. Among the fires are bonfires set just to see what they manage to kill, or heads in the oven like those burnt by The Antlers on “Hospice”. What is special is that they suck you in and it’s not at all difficult to identify yourself with them, whether it’s with what they tell you, how they tell it, or with how the sober Matt Berninger, who is a pleasure to listen to, sings.
All in all, what makes “High Violet” a delight and keeps us from slitting our wrists is its instrumental grace. They have achieved the best sound imaginable. Without looking down on anyone, and knowing how to speak as equals to Arcade Fire, Interpol or Coldplay, these dandies from Brooklyn are very clear about where they are going. They also know who to surround themselves with in order to get there: Peter Katis again at the table (producer of “Turn On The Bright Lights,” don’t forget), Sufjan Stevens, who is indispensable when it comes to untangling the knots of “Afraid Of Everyone,” Richie Reed Parry (Arcade Fire), who has practically become a fixed member of the band, and Justin Vernon ( Bon Iver), in charge of seeing off the tremendous “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” with his harmonies. Although the celebrities aren’t too noticeable, the sum total is disproportionate. It sounds cliché, but in the hands of this team, there is nothing lacking and nothing going spare. All of the songs are tremendous, one after the other, and it is impossible to choose one. Every day, a different one is my favourite: right now, as I am writing, the prize goes to “Conversation 16” and its lyrics, as hair-raising as they are lovely: “I was afraid / I’d eat your brains / Cause I’m eeeevil.”
But yesterday, it was the velvety “Runaway,” with its deep, floating flow, like a heavy curtain; Sunday it was the maddening “Lemonworld” inspired by “ Grey Gardens”. The pleasure is non-stop. Aristocratic and mature, “High Violet” has the same flow as those great salon albums of the end of the 90’s that we had almost forgotten: those of the Tindersticks, specifically, those of American Music Club, or their masters Red House Painters—even those of Lambchop, which have the same degree of sumptuousness. Following in its wake, The National shows elegance and distinction, a comfort with themselves and a neatness, which dazzle you right off the bat. The best thing is that, without hiding behind the impressive body of their sound or the brutality of their lyrics, what really makes them sublime is details like the phantasmagoric choruses or the solitary trumpets. Paying as much attention to the marked features of their soft landscape as to the smaller details, outlining metals, wind instruments, and strings as if they were carved in relief, “High Violet” prioritises the stylisation of arrangements more than ever—they continue to be buried in the depths of the songs, but are more profuse than ever. For this reason, trumping the affected “Boxer,” this sounds like a destructive avalanche of new textures. Its indelible, lovely calligraphy traps you in the spell reserved for high literature alone. And this can only be called an absolute triumph.