Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The National - High Violet

Rating: A-

I feel like reprising my review of LCD Soundsystem's This Is Happening. Everything I said about that album applies here: it's hard for me to judge High Violet without comparing it to The National's last effort, Boxer. That album, like LCD Soundsystem's Sound Of Silver, was one of my favorite records of 2007. High Violet, like This is Happening, maybe doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessor but is nonetheless a damn fine album.

Among the highlights: the fuzz-laden opener "Terrible Love," with its haunting refrain "It takes an ocean not to break"; middle track "Bloodbuzz Ohio," which apes the rhythm section of Boxer's "Brainy" but can be forgiven because Matt Berninger's baritone carries us "to Ohio in a swarm of bees"; and album closer "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," which moves from stark quiet to lush string backings and back.

I'd count their lyrics among the strong points of The National, but like many great lyricists, Berninger isn't confined by having his lyrics make sense. Take the cryptically-titled "Conversation 16." Like in Boxer's "Slow Show," the protagonist is a a self-loathing loser. But while in "Slow Show" he felt socially awkward ("Can I get a minute of not being nervous / And not thinking of my dick?"), here he feels morally reprehensible ("I was afraid I'd eat your brains / 'Cause I'm evil") ... or something. Maybe he's a zombie. The verses, with lyrics like "We live on coffee and flowers / Try not to wonder what the weather will be" don't really enlighten us further.

There's nothing wrong with cryptic lyrics; many of the greatest songwriters have been at the same time the most inscrutable (I'm looking in your direction, Mr. Dylan). The trick with The National is that they make the cryptic lyrics seem direct and personal. After listening to Boxer it became hard to listen to Interpol, a band with a lot of sonic similarities; their lyrics just seemed shallow compared to The National's. But I don't know if that's really true; I think it's all in Berninger's delivery. Closer "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" probably shows this the strongest - there's no story in the lyrics at all, just a vague sense of being lonely and wanting love. But the chorus, backed by harmony vocals (one of the few changes on High Violet in a sonic sense) and strings rises and rises, falling back to Berninger plaintively crying "I'll explain everything to the geeks." I don't have any idea what that means, but Berninger convinces me it means something to him. And maybe that's all that matters.

Buy it from Amazon:
High Violet
The National Official Site

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