Tuesday, May 18, 2010
High on violet
I'm a big fan of Katie's blog and knowing she is a big fan of the National I was surprised to read that she was underwhelmed by their latest album, High Violet. I know that music is a subjective and personal thing but I'm a big fan of this record - I'm touting it as an early front runner for my album of the year. Originally, I was going to write something about how great I found it and encouraged by Katie to put my thoughts down about it, this is what I wrote:
Trying to wrap my head around how brilliant the new National album is a difficult process. I'll write a sentence and it seems ridiculous and not fully formed and I think this is because the album has such depth that it is evolving as I listen to it. For me, it is a glorious cocktail of everything that is right about the music I have loved for the last twenty years with nods to some great bands (probably totally imagined by me rather than through any fault of the National) but High Violet is something exceptionally original at the same time.
For me the sonic touchstones of this album are far ranging and I'm going to get a bit obtuse here so bear with me. One moment I'll hear the horns vs flawless crisp drums clash at the end of 'Bloodbuzz Ohio' that suggest a supercharged version of Mogwai's 'Burn Girl Prom-Queen'. Then, in the next instance I'll hear a slithering bass line reminiscent of Radiohead (eek, sorry readers - terrible comparison but apt) at their most interesting which is then overtaken by the greatest sneaky guitar line Robert Smith never wrote in 1986. There are so many reference points yet they sound like none of the bands I can hear in the music. At times the music contradicts itself in that it shouldn't work in unison but the sound is flawlessly idiosyncratic at every turn.
You'll notice all the bands I mentioned are from the UK and this is what is so confusing about the the National on this album. They are mining a certain territory of Americana alt-rock but sound so far from that sound (as opposed to hacks like Wilco or Calexico), that they almost sound like a British band covering that musical territory. And what a glorious sound it is. While most of the songs are mid-tempo, there is nothing plodding about them. There is an urgency and claustophobia to much of the music but also a dynamic range - drums drop out at odd times, harmoniums drone with intent, distortion sparks and bursts across these sonic landscapes unexpectedly. Strangely, the drums are probably one of the most interesting instruments on the album. They are a million miles from 4/4 time - they shuffle, break and pound like Jim White at his Dirty Three height but the songs here are so complete that it's easy to miss just how weird the drumming is sometimes.
As to the what Matt Berninger is singing about is anyone's guess but there is a definite sense of tension and edge to the songs. What haunts the songs is a sense of loss, addiction and fear. "It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders" doesn't really make a lot of sense but when the song breaks open with the line "And I can’t fall asleep without a little help" hints at the troubles to come. That fear is repeated time and again throughout the lyrics. Berninger sings that sorrow "put me on the pills." The protection and loss of control in 'Afraid of Everyone' hints at deeper tensions:
With my kid on my shoulders I try
Not to hurt anybody I like
But I don’t have the drugs to sort (it out)
The classic reading would be to say this is a break up album when he sings "I don't want to get over you" on 'Sorrow' but a closer reading of the lyrics belies a deeper hurt and fear - not just personal but a wider, societal panic and loss gripping the song's protagonist(s). But s/he is not awash with misery, they play a part in the events unfolding on the album's songs, the coldly brutal line in 'Little Faith' leads the way, "I set a fire just to see what it kills." Berninger's haunting baritone rallies and seduces and the vocals are given a certain hypnotic quality as there is a lot of repetition of key phrases and sounds. The line "Your voice is swallowing my soul, soul, soul" would sound ridiculous sung by anyone else but there is no doubting the conviction or fierceness of it's delivery - his voice sounds fantastic.
Again, it's hard to say exactly what is at the root of the lyrics but the references to family, sacrifice and lost love create a complex patchwork of emotions. At times, it is defeatist and miserablist but the final words that run through the soft waltz 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks' seem to present the key to the album "All the very best of us string ourselves up for love." Anyone who is gripped by the complexities of day to day life should relate to this: the challenges of love, the grip of depression and loss, the fight of emotional and substance addiction with the self doubt and recriminations of the decisions we make. In the end, it is a very adult album dealing with issues that are hard and certainly downbeat but there is a lot to love in the webs that Berninger has weaved.