Monday, May 17, 2010

Somber Situations

I'll talk about music as much as I want. Fuck yourself.

The National
High Violet (2010)ItalicRating: 8.5 (out of 10)

The National have been a go-to band for those up late with nothing to do but drink for a while now. It's those baritone vocals, the gradual impact of the band's sound, and those jittery drums. It's the feeling you get when you try to imitate the voice yourself after too many drinks, it's the high you hit once the band reaches their own climax. For those familiar with what The National do, High Violet isn't going to be particularly surprising, but that isn't always a bad thing. This is an incredibly dependable band releasing its third consecutive eyebrow-raising record. This is acute professionalism cloaked in doom and a little bit of guarded optimism. This is, in many ways, the culmination of what The National have been hinting at for some time.

Is High Violet as good as Boxer or Alligator? Maybe not, but does it matter? All three records are exercises in precision and restraint. The National are good because they aren't going to beat you over the head with how epic they (sort of) are. If you're listening to a Broken Social Scene song and it gets epic, it's going to blow you the fuck out of the room. You're going to hear more instruments and vocal tracks than you can count. You're going to get overwhelmed, and that works for them. But The National are a little bit trickier. Take "Afraid of Everyone," for example. The song builds gradually around a haunting melody. The back-up vocals (in part provided by Sufjan Stevens) coo while the instruments swirl. And as for that baritone voice (it's Matt Berninger for those not acquainted), it does a lot of work. By the end of the song, you're going to be shitting your pants, but you're not going to be sure how you got to that point. And once you pass "Afraid" on the track list, you're going to have a similar reaction to the stellar "Bloodbuzz, Ohio".

So if The National have been doing pretty much the same thing for three straight albums, why do I praise them? Why the kind words? Well, things keep changing slightly. On Alligator the band lost their shit sometimes. Berninger would start to freak out and things would get a little bit out of hand; that's what worked for The National five years ago. A couple of years later on Boxer, the band grew up a little bit, mastering the art of tension and subtle release, captivating audiences with a dark aesthetic and antsy drums. High Violet follows this trajectory logically, offering the collective cool executed so perfectly on Boxer while beefing up the instrumentation and giving Berninger more room to breathe. Those unimpressed with what High Violet are probably disappointed the band has yet to craft their real masterpiece. For me, it's enough that the band consistently dabbles in excellence.

If there's a complaint to be had, it's that High Violet doesn't feature anything that could really be considered up-tempo. It might have been nice for a couple of energetic songs to find their way in both the first and last half of the album, but to demand it would be foolish. The National know what they're doing, and because they do they've been able to rise near the top of the indie-rock world as we enter a new decade. Smack dab in the middle of their career, this is a band that even has some room to grow. Just as I felt after Boxer, the best may be yet to come.

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