Five years ago on a now-infamous tour with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The National, minty-fresh off Alligator, were the putative headliners. But CYHSY developed a full head of buzz and The National played regularly to huge swatches of empty floor. At this point these were two bands heading in opposite directions, except Clap Your Hands Say Yeah became one of the great lost bands of the decade and The National are now a big fucking deal. The New York Times Magazine has appraised your singer’s jib and declared it sturdy; apathy has left the building.
The National are a pretty shadowy, not shady, lot: two sets of brothers, the hobbits and the hippies, bisected by a sturdy-jibbed tall drink of wine, not water. Their creative process is fussy and mannered and pretty fractious. They’re like the 1978 Yankees or something. Sour style notwithstanding, no band’s been better at keeping the avant-garde alive in mid-major rock, dipping from ratchety alt-country, when that was still a thing, to symphonic misery to the bonkers brilliance of “my bodyguard shows her revolver to anyone who asks.” Berninger’s jagged, perfunctory lyrics have always made The National singular; if there were a search engine devoted to Facebook status updates you’d get like a million National hits. Master of the odd juxtaposition, Berninger had me as far back as “poison in a pretty glass” for “Wasp Nest.” Then he dropped “sauvignon fierce freaking out” into “Baby We’ll Be Fine” and pretty much left my jaw hanging by a hinge. Ironically it’s always the most minor of his lines that get cited. At any rate people who don’t like The National, and they actually exist, usually claim it’s too stylized. If you’re one of these people, try High Violet. So far it’s The National’s equivalent of a straight record.
Alligator was angsty; Boxer battled malaise; High Violet is about the fraught art of settling. Nothing sells it like the instant classic “Afraid Of Everyone.” There’s talk of protecting one’s family with “arms umbrella’d,” trying “not to hurt anybody I like,” and other exquisite paranoias. When the drums drop in at 1:25 your heart sort of vaults over something. “Conversation 16″ (“live on coffee and flowers“) and “England” are Carverian in their domestic minutiae, even if it’s just more Berninger pillow talk. There’s also a lot of NYC-is-bullshit: “stuck in New York and the rain’s comin’ down/ I don’t feel like we’re goin’ anywhere” and “waiting for Radio City to sink” from “Little Faith”; “give me a reason to get out of the city” from “Lemonworld”. Empire State of Mind, my ass.
Square in the middle of things are “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Lemonworld,” two of the most puzzling, expressionistic National songs yet. A swarm of bees carry Berninger to Ohio where, presumably, he’ll sit in a sibling-run lemonworld and die. On “Bloodbuzz” he rolls the line “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe” around on his tongue like the saucy discursive riddle it is; on “Lemonworld” he sounds like he’s coming off a bad cold. Both songs are totally fantastic.
I could write all day about Berninger’s wit and persona, but if excellent imagery were all a band needed, I’d be sitting here in a Silver Jews t-shirt. The brothers Dessner and Devendorf create fills that mix classical references with bartop grease and something like magic realism. “Terrible Love,” the mussy, jangled opener, might be their most hallucinatory piece yet. “Sorrow,” by contrast, is clear and sharp as bone: a fastidious hi-hat, background vocals like the theme from Glory, lots of fuckable balefulness. Apropos of nothing much, the next track, “Anyone’s Ghost” is practically a waltz and is also the sexiest National song since “City Middle.”
High Violet is specific and exquisite and if The National were already your thing, you basically knew two years ago how it’d sound. They’re killing the mainstream right now and if that’s depressing for the lifers, at least it reminds you how smart you are. Which is nice. As the philosopher Al Michaels said once, if you’re just joining us, too bad. Clap your hands, say yeah.
R.E.M. – Automatic For The People
Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights
Talk Talk – Colour Of Spring
MP3: “Bloodbuzz Ohio”