Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Review: The National - High Violet

I’m going out on a limb here. Making a bold prediction.

Germany will win the World Cup.

Ok, that isn’t really my bold prediction, though it would help me win $150 in our World Cup pool. My bold prediction is The National’s High Violet will be in my top 10 albums of the year in December.

Why is that such a bold prediction? In a year that has already seen amazing releases by artists like Joanna Newsom, Broken Social Scene, and Beach House, as well as newcomers like Surfer Blood, and with albums on the horizon from acts like LCD Soundsystem, MIA, Panda Bear, and rumors of a new Iron & Wine, guessing what’s going to come out at the top of such a strong year for new music is like picking the winner of the World Cup or the NCAA tournament. There’s several favorite contenders and safe picks, but in the end there are going to be out-of-nowhere upsets and disappointments from strong teams. (I’m looking at you, Hold Steady.)

This is also a risky move because it’s early May. Who’s to say that an album that strikes me now won’t have cooled like the weather come December? Like when picking for NCAA tournament brackets (dammit West Virginia!) I’m following my gut. Very seldom does an album catch me on first listen—usually I have to hear something a few times before it sinks in—but High Violet was immediately accessible and moving. On first listen, the album felt familiar but paradoxically brand new. On tenth listen, I find myself falling in love with every song all over again, like octogenarians renewing their vows.

The opening track, “Terrible Love,” sets the tone for the rest of the album. It starts slowly with fuzzy guitars, bright piano, and Matt Berninger’s distinctive warm baritone. The drums’ steady four-on-the-floor beat reveals an urgency to the song, and that feeling of tension continues to build as the band comes together in a tightly-orchestrated bedlam. “Terrible Love” is followed by the appropriately named “Sorrow,” with its chilling chorus of “I don’t want to get over you,” and the catchy but haunting “Anyone’s Ghost.” “A Little Faith” completes the trio of strong but not overly remarkable songs.

The album hits its true stride in the middle with a pair of amazing songs, “Afraid of Everyone” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the first single. “Afraid of Everyone” begins with Berninger crooning the chorus over minor key strings and airy backing vocals. When the rest of the band joins in for the first true verse, you realize few songs this bleak have made your foot tap and your head nod to the beat since Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Bloodbuzz Ohio” may be the tightest, strongest song The National have released to date, which is high praise for a band with so many great singles to their name. Not only is the song catchy yet complicated, with all the instruments and voices coming together in a perfect and unified whole, but the lyrics create a sense of place, something sadly lacking in many songs. Here we have a band that originated in Cincinnati before relocating (like everyone else) to Brooklyn singing, “I was carried / to Ohio in a swarm of bees / I never married / but Ohio don’t remember me” and “I never thought about love / when I thought about home.” These lyrics create an image of home tied less to a specific place than to the universal ideal of Home that anyone who has ever truly moved away can identify with, especially if, like Berninger, you never identified this particular place called Home with a feeling of love until you left. While in this scenario the underappreciated former lover is named Ohio, it could as easily be any name we give Home.

Immediately following this song of lost love for Ohio is another song about New York, “Lemon World,” the first weak point in the album. While the verses are complex and moving, the simple repetitive chorus makes “Lemon World” something of a disappointment, especially following the two strongest tracks on the album. Like a lemon sorbet and nice champagne, this track seems to be a palette cleanser between the meaty “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and the delicate flavors of the plodding but beautiful “Runaway.” With “Conversation 16,” we return to main courses, as Berninger sings about leaving “the silver city / cause all the silver girls / gave us black dreams” and how he’s afraid he would eat your brains. Because he’s evil, naturally. “Conversation 16” is the pop song equivalent of a zombie flick, but one of the good ones. Think 28 Days Later instead of The Crazies.

High Violet closes with two of the weaker songs on the album, “England” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” And when I say “weaker,” I mean the term relatively. Compared to the rest of the album, these last two songs are something of a disappointment. Put instead on most other albums by most other bands, these would be highlights. Not quite singles, but heavy hitting role players. These songs suffer less on their own merits than on the strengths of the rest of the album. Both songs drag a little but have catchy hooks that will get stuck in your head and leave you wanting to listen to High Violet again, which ultimately should be the effect of all closing tracks.

If I can cite any overall fault with High Violet, it is the uniform sound of the album. Other than “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” no songs escape the cohesive sound established on “Terrible Love” and running through “Vanderlyle.” Put in negative terms, many of the songs sound the same. After listening to the album, I often find myself with a chorus stuck in my head, but not the chorus of any particular song. Instead, the lyrics and melody of one song will flow after a few lines into another song. At the same time, I could put this criticism in positive terms. The album functions as a coherent whole with an identity created by its tone and production. And if we evaluate albums based on their effectiveness as albums rather than collections of songs, then this is an excellent album indeed. One of the year’s best, I’m willing to wager.

High Violet is available now from 4AD.

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