The National, High Violet

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 06.15.11 in Reviews
Tense and quivering — the National have done it again

By this point, if you have even a passing interest in the quickly shifting tides of indie rock, you've already figured out what you think of the National. Say this for the Ohio-to-Brooklyn transplants: they don't engender indifference; instead, they cleanly divide those who've heard them into two camps — those who pledge rabid devotion and those who are baffled by their success.

In a way, that's because the National can be subtle to the point of being almost undetectable, and anything short of deep, focused listening is going to render their success a particularly curious mystery. The reasons people grow obsessed with this band have less to do with hooks and choruses as it does emotional resonance — the ability to see themselves in the band's lonesome, loping music. On Boxer, rumble-throated vocalist Matt Berninger crafted pitch-perfect depictions of emotionally stunted — or outright unavailable — individuals stranded in a city too big to navigate, trying to make sense of themselves and the people around them. Unlike, say, the man-sized adolescents in a Judd Apatow film, Berninger's protagonists were deeply distraught about their condition, and tried to combat it — usually in futility — with either outright avoidance or the kind of repression that inevitably leads to implosion. All of the record's romantic relationships were fraught with restlessness and dissatisfaction, and its greatest rushes came in the songs about escape — even if that escape was juvenile and psychologically unhealthy.

Berninger's great gift is his ability to fish lyrics from a rushing stream of subconscious — they're all sense-imagery and inference and shadowplay. Written out on paper end to end they don't make a lot of literal sense; instead, they trip triggers set deep in the brain that, taken cumulatively, provide a big-picture sense of what's going on song to song. This is part of the reason why the National can be so off-putting to so many: If you're not jacked into that same series of signs and signifiers as Berninger — knowing instinctively, for example, that "What makes you think I enjoy being led to the flood?" means "I hate fighting as much as you do" — the songs can start to seem nonsensical. It's telling that the least effective songs on High Violet are the ones in which Berninger's lyrics are most literal.

It must be said that High Violet does not quite better its predecessor — though following two consecutive perfect records is, indeed, a tough trick. The National do coiled tension better than most any band out there, but since they've vocally shunned the kind of release that comes with a "Mr. November" or an "Abel," much of High Violet feels like a quivering clenched fist. Rarely has a band seemed so pathologically afraid of payoff.

Fortunately, the group still excels at deep-focus song construction, and High Violet is packed with moments of masterful craftsmanship and devastating beauty. To wit: "Runaway," a slow-burning song about the kind of fights you have with the person you love most that ranks among the best the band has ever written. "Afraid of Everyone" progresses from somber, trawling piano to whirlwind of sound, abetted by ghostly backing vocals and a squiggle of guitar that twitches like a pinched nerve. Berninger sounds particularly hopeless here, lamenting "With my kid on my shoulders I've tried/ not to hurt anybody I like," as the typhoon swells around him. He kicks off "Conversation 16" with the dire proclamation "I think the kids are in trouble," and makes blank-tone "doot doot doot doots" sound like dark prophecy on the roiling "Lemonworld." On their earliest outings — specifically their self-titled debut and its follow-up, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, the group tended toward broad strokes, subverting conventional country/folk arrangements with dry gallows humor. Nine years in, their intent is entirely inverted; they're flash-freezing song structures and concentrating instead on chiseling tiny details into the ice. You can almost hear the delicacy with which they've inlaid every tiny nuance.

The closest the album gets to full-on eruption is the magnificent "Bloodbuzz Ohio." In four minutes, it showcases everything the National are capable of at the peak of their powers: a terrifically counterintuitive drum pattern from Bryan Devendorf, convulsing guitars from the Dessners and verses that run as circular as a religious mantra, with just the tiniest detail changed with each repetition, drawing tension from the juxtaposition of the spiritual with the material ("stand up straight at the foot of your love/ Lay my head on the hood of your car"). The whole song is a showcase for Berninger's knack for allusion — he describes his friends' uncertain fiscal and emotional futures with, "the floors are falling out from everybody I know." A swell of trumpet in the background hints at epiphany: It grows slowly and feels determined and insistent and earnest and then, just as it's teetering on the brink of ecstatic glossolalia, it recedes. Other acts would have barreled fearlessly forward, full-on into mezzo forte. The National are the only band that can make exhaling feel like a cop-out.