Album Review: The National ‘High Violet’

The National proclaimed ‘High Violet’ would be their happy pop record. It’s not.

Many people thought that this record would be a massive disappointment after the huge success of ‘Boxer’. It’s not.

What it is, is a masterpiece.

Of course we have already heard several of the songs of ‘High Violet’ before. A few songs were debuted during live shows, Bloodbuzz Ohio and Afraid Of Everyone were released as free downloads recently, and Terrible Love was debuted on Jimmy Fallon.

Nothing can really prepare you for hearing ‘High Violet’ in its entirety for the first time, however. It is a true music experience.

Opener Terrible Love immediately dispels any thoughts of this being a ‘happy pop album’- straight away it is the same dark, brooding The National that we have come to love, as lead singer Matt Berninger chants “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders” in that characteristically restrained baritone.

One of the many things I found amazing about The National’s previous album, ‘Boxer’, is the way it built up tension and that need for a Mr. November style moment of release in the listener, but yet never gave it to you. ‘High Violet’ is different and at the same time similar, because it still builds up this restrained tension- at the end of every chorus of Sorrow, I am just waiting for Matt to start screaming. However the anthemic moments of ‘High Violet’ come not in the form of unrestrained screaming but rather in slowly-building instrumentation that eventually releases in a huge crescendo, with the case in point being the conclusion of England.

Guest appearances abound, with the two most notable being Sufjan Stevens singing the backing vocals of Afraid Of Everyone and Justin Vernon singing the conclusion of the album closer, Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks. However in typical The National style, the songs never sound cluttered, but rather somehow simplistic upon first listen. It is only upon repeated listens that you start to peel away the infinite layers of everyone single track, noticing an extra guitar riff here and those added backing vocals there. It will take many years of ‘High Violet’ on heavy rotation to fully appreciate the sheer effort that has been put into designing every song; the lush and layered instrumentation of brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Scott and Bryan Devendorf.

A fascinating and extremely well-written article by Nicholas Dawidoff accompanied the album stream on the New York Times website, where Nicholas talked about the intricate process The National take when writing a song. He observed the delicate care that is put into the recording and mixing process, and used the song Lemonworld as a microcosm for the band’s style- apparently over 80 different takes of Lemonworld were produced, none of which the band were fully happy with. Eventually, they settled on the original and comparatively raw version, which is what is included on ‘High Violet’.

And Lemonworld is my favourite song on ‘High Violet’, and indeed my favourite song of the year so far. It is impossibly gorgeous; impossibly beautiful. With incomprehensible lyrics like “You and your sister live in a lemonworld, I want to sit in and die”, that break out into moments of clarity such as “I gave my heart to the army, it seemed the only sentimental thing to do”. Matt’s “Du du du du du du” that punctuates the song even manages to be sublime, if only because it is so strange hearing him sing rhythms rather than words.  Lemonword is simply a stunning song.

Keyboard on ‘High Violet’ is used relatively sparsely, however when it makes an appearance the songs simply soar. Case in point is of course Bloodbuzz Ohio, which we already know and love from when it was released a few weeks ago. The better example however may be England, which is a five-minute slow-building anthem built entirely around a piano riff. It is yet another gorgeous song, and when it builds up to a climax complete with brass and a full blown orchestra, it is almost unrecognisable from the sparse piano that the song began with. If there is one song that sums The National up, it is probably this one.

There are other slow builders here, like the five-minute Runaway and Afraid Of Everyone. There are also moments of typical The National darkness, such as Sorrow, which begins with “Sorrow found me when I was young. Sorrow waited, sorrow won”. Meanwhile Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks finishes the album spectacularly, even if I don’t have a dam idea what it is about.

There is not a single song on ‘High Violet’ that doesn’t pull its weight and contribute to the record as a whole. It is a carefully constructed album that delivers in peaks and valleys and subtle changes. But then it is The National, did we ever expect anything different?

‘High Violet’ is a near-perfect album.

However I’m not going to give this a perfect score, so I guess I need to find one miniscule problem with it. If there can be one criticism of ‘High Violet’, it’s that there is no Fake Empire. There is no one instantly accessible, resounding touching, unquestionably brilliant, catchy song. That song that is loved by fans and critics of the band alike. That song where you think straight away, “Fuck, I love this more than any music I’ve ever loved before”. That song you always remember hearing for the first time.

Both Terrible Love and Lemonworld come close but they really just aren’t the spearhead songs that Fake Empire was. However ultimately this is a redundant criticism, because it is only scoring The National based on their own impossibly high standards. Most songs on ‘High Violet’ would be the lead single on any other band’s album.

But then the songs of ‘High Violet’ would never be on another band’s album, because music like this just doesn’t exist anywhere else. The National, through both coincidence and design, have constructed a sound that is entirely theirs, which is no easy task in the modern music world.

In an age dominated by Lady Gaga and albums sung by laptops, it is such a relief to know that music this beautiful, this unique, this human, still exists.

It has been observed that The National tend to improve exponentially with every album, so the pressing question becomes: is this a better album than ‘Boxer’? Obviously it’s too early for me to say definitively which I prefer, but at the moment I still think ‘Boxer’ is my favourite, indeed I gave it my second favourite album of the decade last year. However ‘High Violet’ is right up there, and is an absolutely amazing album in its own right.

What we have here is an instant classic, from the moment you hear the first beats of Terrible Love.

And, as you’re listening to ‘High Violet’, you have to ask yourself: does music really come any better than this?

Album Rated: 9.5/10

Listen To: Lemonworld, Terrible Love, Bloodbuzz Ohio, England

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16 Responses to “Album Review: The National ‘High Violet’”

  1. The only thing it doesn’t have is a slow show in my opinion. I refuse to give this anything but perfection 10/10…..You really can’t make this album much better….This could very well be the album of the decade… made in 2010… go listen again

    • Haha I never thought that a 9.5/10 review would get complaints that the score is too low :P There are probably only three or four albums ever made that I would give a perfect score (‘Boxer’ is one of them). But anyway fair enough, cheers for the comment.

  2. Lachy its a 10 . Pure Genius Joy !!!

  3. Great review. This band is truly amazing, and definitely the best thing going on in music today. I’ve streamed the album in its entirety nonstop since it became available yesterday on New York Times website. Each listen reveals new layers, and provides listeners vast depths to dissect, or to merely just appreciate at surface level as well. The worst thing about the release of this album, is we’ll have to wait another few years for the next one.

  4. No spearhead song? Really? Bloodbuzz Ohio would like to have a word with you. When I first heard that song after it was released by the band, I KNEW this album would change my life. I was right.

    • That’s true actually, I probably haven’t been paying Bloodbuzz enough attention as part of the album because I listened to it so much when it was first released as a free download. I certainly love it but it is definitely not my favourite song on the album.

  5. The only thing I may disagree with is that I think this may actually be better than Boxer, which I thought was impossible. Sometimes I’m listening to this album and I begin to feel completely overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of just the arrangements, I then pull myself away and begin to listen to the lyrics and it all gets a bit silly – as in, I can’t believe it is this good – who else could get away with with ‘I was afraid I’d eat your brains, cause I’m evil’?! – possibly Morrissey, but that’s it.

  6. I can`t believe conversation 16 doesn`t get mentioned ;-)
    It`s by far my favourite, those lyrics are sharp like an ice pick. mmmmmm.

  7. the spearhead song is “Anyone’s Ghost”… after i heard the record for the first time, that’s the one that i kept listening to over and over… for about a week straight.

  8. The fact that everyone has their own spearhead song perhaps says more about this album than anything else could.

  9. Amazing article, I haven’t been able to stop listening to the album since it became available on NY Times. The National is an amazing band, and whereas I’ve loved all of their previous albums before, it took me a while to get used to them… but this album was instant love for me. I can’t get over the fact that how each and every song is perfect in its own sound and way. I simply adore “Lemonworld”.

  10. Great review of a perfect album. Boxer was my favorite album of the last 4 years, this one looks to be my favorite of the next 4. And yeah, no mention of conversation 16? i’ve listened to this album probably about 20 times now, and just like Boxer, each time different tracks stick out, right now though, conversation 16 is the standout, terrible love oddly enough is to me, the weakest track on the album (which is still a great track..)

  11. I just can’t stop listening to it. It’s easily the most beautiful, complete thing they’ve ever done. I thought they’d struggle to top Boxer, but this is so much more accomplished. Ok, this is taking up valuable High Violet time………..

  12. Also, I’m totally not ashamed to say it’s made me cry more than once. Real men cry too, real men cry too (c/o The Other Jeffrey Lebowski).

  13. The person who said that the fact everyone has a different spearhead song more about this album than anything else is absolutely correct! For me, its England. That’s just after a a few days listening on the NY Times website… As with Boxer, I suspect it will change from week to week as the album grows on me. But this one has grabbed me more immediately than Boxer did.

    Is it a perfect 10 for me? Boxer was. I think this may well end up as on as well, but I’ll have to wait until I can hear the damn thing again :(

  14. absolutely brilliant. a masterpiece. best album in years. I’m lost for words… 20 out of ten is my rating.
    I’m a Radiohead fan but this… this is absolutely fantastic.

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