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There are worse gigs to have than as Barack Obama’s opening act. This is the role the National filled in late 2007, when the future 44th president of our country used “Mr. November” at campaign stops. The Cincinnati-born, New York-based five piece had emerged as a band with far more eyes on them than their popularity would suggest. The group was building off the hype of their seminal breakthrough, Boxer, and they were morphing from a critically acclaimed indie act to a worldwide phenomenon. The steady build from 2007 to 2010 found the group accruing a significant number of fans, to such an extreme that by the time they released High Violet in 2010, the album debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts and the band premiered “Terrible Love” on the Jimmy Fallon Show.
High Violet is one of those albums that exists as both a showcase of new music and an event. For The National, High Violet represented some sort of promise fulfilled. Just a year after Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, and Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, the National became another indie act made good. Brooklyn was booming, and the band consisting of a wine-guzzling midwestern Leonard Cohen, two brothers plucked from guitar-nerd heaven, and two more brothers using the Grateful Dead and good vibes as the chief inspiration for the rhythm section, somehow became one of the most captivating acts in the nation.
Like seemingly every National record, High Violet begins with an absolute bang. “Terrible Love” is an all-time album opener, and perhaps the best song the National have recorded to date. Singer Matt Berninger begins with his vision blurred and words slurred, acting out the destructive tendencies he describes. His voice moves between self-contained characters at a moment’s notice, at one point almost too zonked to speak and the next completely raspy from pleading for understanding. It’s a performance, a method acting masterclass in character-based songwriting. Early National albums like Boxer and Alligator before it moved from quiet to loud and clean to messy. Here, on “Terrible Love,” the band throws away this rulebook, with the Dessner brothers fuzzing up their guitars from the outset as the Devendorfs use the rhythm section to slowly pull the song toward its thrilling apex.
The next few tracks on the album do more to establish tone and aesthetics than shine through in their own right, as “Sorrow” builds off of trembling acoustic guitars and a cleaner baritone from Berninger. The drums are nearly echoless, bright in tone and simple in composition. “Little Faith” scurries in panic, with sirens for guitars blaring above melodic and stagnant synthesizers. Bryan Devendorf shows off just how impressive of a drummer he is, giving the song its entire pace with just a few scattered ghost notes on his snare drum. Berninger’s desperation is palpable as he sings, “All our lonely kicks are getting harder to find / We'll play nuns versus priests until somebody cries.” In the narcotized Upper Manhattan world that the National often watch and comment on, any emotion at all will suffice; even if it causes tears.
“Afraid of Everyone” is the album’s second single after “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” and while the album’s second-half is a masterpiece in a way the first doesn’t quite reach, these two tracks are an apt thesis on the National’s changed approach for High Violet. Sufjan Stevens lends harmonies to the former, giving an ethereality to a band that’s so often rooted in a cold, broken reality. Berninger goes nearly breathless during the song’s finale, “Your voice has stolen my soul, soul, soul,” he sings, literally losing his voice as he does so ― a masterful showcase of descriptive vocal performance.
“Bloodbuzz” was released about two months before the album came out, and it’s a brilliant dividing point between the album’s two halves. Devendorf’s drums again steal the show, bouncing across the recording like a proton looking for its partner. The horns build with a quiet fury, and Berninger’s voice is more delicate here than on most of the record. The song is an emotional ode to the state that birthed the band, with lyrics from Berninger like, “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees / I'll never marry but Ohio don't remember me.” Even when the images are nostalgic, they’re dipped in pain and regret: “I never thought about love when I thought about home.”
Berninger’s characters tend to always be running from things, and on High Violet his imagination doesn’t stop trying to escape, but perhaps these voices have grown comfortable with the practice. The album is a reconciliation of broken faith and half-hearted regret. There’s no point in letting pain linger if it doesn’t hurt that badly in the first place. The album’s back half begins with “Lemonworld,” an imagistic narrative from Berninger that’s more of a novel in verse than lyrics to a song. It’s spare and precise, with Berninger’s words cutting cleanly: “You and your sister live in a lemonworld / I want to sit in and die.” Among the layers and layers of the National’s elegant and pain-stakingly assembled compositions lie Berninger’s lyrics, which deserve their own listen outside the context of the music. His storytelling is incredibly intoxicating and he’s able to conjure the emotions of the words he sings in a way I’ve never heard before. It’s poetry, plain and simple.
“Runaway” is a slow-building triumph, stadium-ready in a way the National began to master throughout High Violet. The album’s closing run is flawless, with “Conversation 16,” “England,” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” each succeeding in independently ecstatic ways. “Conversation 16” moves with the propulsion of a Hollywood thriller, while “England” is unabashedly anthemic, epically stirring without ever becoming corny. “Vanderlyle” is somber and mournful with hints of optimism, which is perhaps the only way to rightfully end a National album.
The creation of the album was rumored to be an intense and volatile process, with the band spending days on certain details that nearly ripped the threads of the group’s foundation apart. It’s dramatic, but it also makes sense considering how thoroughly technical every detail of High Violet is. The band’s ability to stitch together a quilt and hide the seams betrays the work of masters, and it foreshadows a run of records that solidified the National as one of the most thrilling bands we’ve seen in a decade or more. Now, the group is more an entity than a band, with a festival and documentary populating album releases, but High Violet propelled them to this place. It was the last time The National were simply a band, before the world truly came calling. Prior to High Violet, they never had to answer.
Will Schube is a filmmaker and freelance writer based in Austin, TX. When he's not making movies or writing about music, he's training to become the first NHL player with no professional hockey experience whatsoever.