After the almost excruciating emotional impact of Boxer, The National’s 2007 breakthrough hit, the stakes for its follow-up couldn’t be higher if they were bundled with a science experiment bound for the next shuttle flight to the International Space Station. Because of those rather inflated expectations, the greatest danger for either diehard fan or casual listener (or inattentive reviewer) at this juncture would be to use Boxer as some sort of template or sonic road map by which to navigate the decidedly darker, moodier and more complex High Violet. Given Boxer’s almost suffocating desolation, that truly is saying something.
High Violet begins with the trembling shiver of “Terrible Love,” a song with a sonic evolution every bit as conflicted as its title. As Matt Berninger delivers an almost hymnal reading of the lyric, “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders” in his mesmerizingly sonorous baritone, the band quietly stirs up the distilled spirit of The Smiths produced by T Bone Burnett and Steve Albini and guitar chords shimmering in the air like heat lines rising off summer pavement or the steam escaping from a witch’s cauldron — or perhaps both, a strangely appropriate convergence of science and magic. But as the song builds to its conclusion, the shimmer gives way to waves of squalling shoegaze chaos and Berninger works even harder to maintain some sense of sanity in the face of love’s seemingly unwelcome advances while the band offers up sweet Beach Boys vocal harmonies just above the churn. It is an unsettling and perfect way to launch The National’s latest epistle of beautiful doom.
In some ways, High Violet finds The National maturing in an amazingly strange fashion, with a sound that rests comfortably but disturbingly in the Bermuda Triangle created by Leonard Cohen, Magnetic Fields and Radiohead. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” somehow manages to sound epic and intimate simultaneously, while “Runaway” has the baroque Indie Rock sound that Nick Drake might have evolved into had he survived to confront the new millennium.
There are moments of absolutely gorgeous melodicism, and they’re generally matched note for note by a disquieting undercurrent of discord and dread. With High Violet, The National have proven more than their maturity, musicality and stamina — the ex-Cincinnatians have produced a work of lasting impact that shows their incredible diversity and their ability to balance immediacy and classicism.
The National has always hinted at the possibility that they're the kind of band that could produce an illustrious catalog over a long period. High Violet is the next step toward a first ballot Hall of Fame induction.
(Read Jason Gargano's recent interview with The National's Bryce Dessner here.)