Review: The National's 'High Violet,' for the Eeyore in all of us
While those lyrics are anchor the album’s second song, the appropriately-titled “Sorrow,” that mournful emotion pours its way out of almost every note of the album, leaving the listener either ready to slit his wrist at the CD’s end or incredibly grateful to have found a fellow traveler in life’s often desolate journey.
The National have been around for more than a decade, but the feeling is that their time is now. Both 2004’s “Alligator” and 2007’s “Boxer” received critical acclaim, even topping some “best-of” lists, but now the excitement is ratcheted up to, as our colleague Katie Hasty put it, “fever pitch.” Read her interview with the band here. Click here to hear the album streaming on npr.com
To be sure, band has been marinating nicely over its last few albums and seems poised—not because they’ve changed so much, but because the rest of us have caught up with them—to break through to the mainstream.
The songs on “High Violet” create a sense of beautiful dread. In tunes like “Terrible Love” or “Afraid of Everyone,” well-placed distortion and a somewhat intentionally (we hope ) muddy mix can make it hard to decipher the exact lyrics, but it’s never difficult to translate the fearful menace lurking at every turn. Berninger’s rich voice—which sounds like a cross between Leonard Cohen and David Bowie— is weary to the bone, yet still sounds inviting. Nice work if you can pull that one off.
Musically, what makes The National so compelling is its layered melodies, as the instruments pile on top of each other in an intriguing but never unpleasant way or pop in and out for after a few measures. When they finally strip down to just vocals and one or two instruments, such as on the lovely, spare “Runaway,” the effect is striking.
Drummer Bryan Dressner’s often military-type precision on the propulsive “Anyone’s Ghost” and drone-y “Little Faith” add a tasty dimension often missing from this kind of smart rock.
Critics usually drool over bands like The National calling their music “majestic” and “weighty.” It’s all that to be sure, but sometimes superlatives like that can scare off people. To us, The National make music for the Eeyore in all of us.