There might not be a band that does tragedy better than The National. Most sad acts either go for the stripped, intimate and heartfelt sorrow (looking at you, alt-folk…), or the grand, epic loss (note: doesn’t have to be emo…), but The National are capable of doing both. The orchestral sounds from the brothers Dessner (Aaron & Bryce) and Devendorf (Bryan & Scott), plus utility player Padme Newsome, are neither overdone nor minimalist, and the baritone vocals from singer Matt Berninger have both grandeur and a close-up nature. Their latest, the highly anticipated High Violet, is an exquisite showcase of that, even if it lacks the rock impact that made their prior work extra seminal.
The National’s 2005 Beggar’s Banquet debut, Alligator, earned scores of critical acclaim, but it was the following Boxer (QRO review) that saw the commercial success to match, with the Cincinnati-by-way-of-Brooklyn outfit ascending to the top rungs of indie-dom, such as headlining festivals (QRO photos, headlining a festival), and even opening New York’s massive Terminal 5 (QRO venue review – QRO live review of the night after that). And it was all deserved, as those two records have managed to only grow in greatness since then, from Alligator opener “Secret Meeting” to Boxer closer “Gospel”, and everything in the “[City] Middle” (QRO video). However, that’s only put more pressure on High Violet, and while the record can’t meet those extreme expectations, it’s still up there.
Or rather down there, as High Violet is definitely a downbeat piece of work. From the restrained tragedy of opener “Terrible Love” to the strings goodbye of closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, sadness pervades. This gives the album a bit of a one-note feel, but what a one note: the epic & intimate, pressing and graceful “Afraid of Everyone” was great enough to even impress David Letterman when performed on The Late Show (QRO Indie on Late Night TV). The National do focus more on the orchestral, and pieces like that & the following single “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, or the grand-yet-comfortable “Conversation 16”, and they do it better than anyone.
Including themselves. Latest single “Anyone’s Ghost” would be considered the greatest National song not written by The National, if it weren’t that it was – instead, the still-strong piece feels like a less memorable “Ohio”, and Berninger’s chorus/title line of “I don’t want to be anyone’s ghost” almost comes off as too obviously a National song. Just look at the titles to the first five songs: “Terrible Love”, “Sorrow”, “Anyone’s Ghost”, “Little Faith”, and “Afraid of Everyone” – if this were anyone but The National, critics would be telling the band to take some Zoloft. Not that The National can’t pull it off, whether intimate like “Sorrow”, epic like “Little Faith”, or both like “Afraid”. But it does leave later piece “Runaway” a bit grasping for original air. “Lemonworld” shifts out of this a bit, with a more appealing rhythm, but that takes away a bit of its weight, and “England”, while definitely beautiful, tips its hat too far towards the sad songwriters of ol’ Blighty – The National ain’t The Smiths (that’s not a knock – just that they’re good enough at who they are that they shouldn’t try to be something that they’re not).
Since the stupendous success of Boxer, The National have put out a ‘victory lap’ EP (The Virginia EP – QRO review) & a making-of documentary (A Skin, A Night), as well as giving birth, or at least dramatically increasing the growth rate of, the burgeoning indie-classical movement. Most recently, they’ve curated festivals like their hometown’s MusicNow and Knoxville’s Big Ears (QRO photos of the festival – QRO photos of The National headlining Big Ears), and even their own ‘High Violet Annex’ next to New York’s Other Music (QRO venue review) for five days to celebrate the release of the record. All this activity has hinted at the band’s shift towards a more classical tragedy, and away from the rock undertones of such Boxer tracks as “Apartment Story” (QRO video), let alone Alligator’s “Mr. November” or “Abel” (and all of that curating – the new big thing in music – is a little ‘artiste elite’ when done by a contemporary band, and not David Bowie or Pavement…).
But can you criticize a band for making a record that contends for album of the year, when their last two contended for album of the decade? Can you criticize a band for shifting away from the sound of the songs you’d die to hear live, towards a related sound that they do better than anyone else? Were your expectations just too high for High Violet? Could they have been higher?
To put it more simply: The National have put together an epic tragedy with epic greatness. Again.
MP3 Stream: “Afraid of Everyone”