The National: High Violet
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Ah, The National. I feel like a traitor to my progressive metal roots even mentioning them. But you know what? I'm going to mention them anyway, even though everyone else on the internets is mentioning them right now, too. (Quiet, little prog-metal imp in my head. You just shut right up.)
Frankly, there's a reason why The National is getting such press right now - and that's because they write wonderful, soulful, melancholic music. It's not the kind you want to work out to (believe me, I've tried - way too slow.) It's not the kind of stuff you headbang to. But when it's dark and you're sitting, huddled in a blanket, reading Vonnegut and pondering on your life and how you've become what you are, The National have written the soundtrack for your existential crisis.
While their first two albums were pretty good alt-country, it was with third effort Alligator that they proved themselves to be game-changers - and this grew to an even greater degree with 2007's Boxer. But how do you follow two albums like that?
The progression to this point has been slow, deliberate, and painstaking - but it feels just where it needs to be. The music is more symphonic, almost suffocating in spots. The three albums, taken as a whole, feel like a three-act play about growing up and accepting the responsibilities and sorrows that come with adulthood. (Nowhere is this more prominent than on High Violet, with songs about raising children and dealing with long-term relationships that ooze pathos and understanding of what life is like now as we all get older.)
Matt Berninger, the distinctive baritone who sings and writes the lyrics for the band, has come a long way as a songwriter. Some of these words create such an overbearing feeling of defeat mingled with hope, and his deep, spaced-out voice simply adds to the allure. Lyrics like "Sorrow found me when I was young / sorrow waited, sorrow won" feel like things any one of us could have written, but couldn't articulate.
As I mentioned, the music feels more expansive this time around - the band brought in lots of outside help from string sections, backing vocalists, and the like. Consequently, it doesn't have the intimacy of Boxer, but seems to be detached - which, given the subject matter, is perfectly appropriate.
I know that all this gushing about how great this album specifically and this band in general are seems really predictable, seeing as how every major music publication is doing the same thing, but they're just that good. They deserve the praise, and they deserve the attention.
Final verdict: Adore it
It may not be quite as good as Boxer (but then, I've always been partial to second acts in three-act works), but it's one of the best things to come out this year so far. Every track seems essential to the whole of the record, and nothing feels unnecessary or like filler. The plaintive cries of their songs echo the hearts of a disaffected generation - and make it somehow even more communal, more honest. I know this may not be up my fellow reviewer's aisle, but it's his loss - this really is a release of the highest caliber.