Album Review: The National – ‘High Violet’ (4AD)

It’s been a slow and languid journey, but the Brooklyn fivesome have finally come home to brood

Seems Aesop was really on to something with his hare and tortoise tale: it’s taken a decade for The National to ferment a hard-shelled cocktail of personal confession and prickling diffidence that deserves to make them fabled. Those whose regular nocturnal pursuits encompass glowering at a cruel world through part-drawn curtains while glugging back cheap Shiraz flocked to the quintet’s side after previous full-lengths ‘Alligator’ and ‘Boxer’. Now ‘High Violet’ is about to entice a whole new batch.

Darker and more introspectively brooding than ever, in places it’s the most immediate National effort since their overlooked eponymous debut. Sidestepping studio sterility, it’s imbued with crackling vivacity that’s unusual for a band at this stage in their careers. It’s apparent straightaway in the hum of opener ‘Terrible Love’, where aching harmonies swarm around trademark percussive crescendos and subtly arranged orchestral splendour.

Yet it’s still a grower like its predecessors; lyrics that jump forth seldom rival those that emerge from the mist several dozen listens down the line. Matt Berninger’s droll baritone intonations are a goldmine of pithy insight; laconic, adorably insecure and dotted with genuinely enigmatic non-sequiturs. Yet there’s a continuing sense that the band look down on moping, or at least at moping done without a wry smile. So for every ‘Sorrow’ (sample sentiment ‘I don’t wanna get over you’), there’s a ‘Conversation 16’, wherein Berninger pops pomposity by deadpanning, “I was afraid I’d eat your brains/’Cos I’m evil” like The Misfits gone lounge.

Proving maturation beyond doubt, where their lyrics once enveloped twisted relationships and, prior to quitting their day jobs, office-toil hell, now moments like ‘Afraid Of Everyone’ allude to parenthood’s perils. No cheery paean to reproduction, Berninger hoists his “kid on my shoulders” before the stark, spine-chilling realisation that “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out”, ending utterly broken and vulnerable. Just when you fear the mood is unrelentingly bleak, however, single ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ arrives, overflowing with bombastic charisma and a longing for the open road.

Goddamn it’s taken a while, but with ‘High Violet’ The National’s slow and steady evolution can no longer be ignored. This lot are fully grown-up, coloured in and going overground. And if the masses aren’t ready by now, they probably never will be.

Adam Kennedy

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Click here to get your copy of The National’s ‘High Violet’ from the Rough Trade shop

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