The National have been together for 11 years, but are only now penetrating the mainstream consciousness. Albums like Alligator (2005) and Boxer (2007), typified by sparsely majestic arrangements over which Matt Berninger’s baritone is allowed sonorously to intone – set them a template which, on their latest record, they have rather bravely chosen not to eschew. The National have their detractors – they can be accused of being a more robust Coldplay, a kind of joyless REM, all portentous seriousness and masculine angst – but High Violet belies that reputation by being, to your surprise, also rather fun to follow.
Where highlights on Boxer – ‘Squalor Victoria’, for example – might have sourced their memorable power from muscularly delivered hooks, High Violet feels a little more arabesque, repetitively ornate but also delicate. In part, this is simply a function of the much stronger melodies the band build out of their recurring phrases. On ‘Afraid of Everyone’, for instance, the refrain (“I don’t have the drugs to sort / I don’t have the drugs to sort it out / Sort it out”), is lifted by its tune (also that of the title words, sung earlier in the verses) to sound rather more profound than it reads. ‘Lemonworld’, too, builds some pleasingly complex rhythms out of some fairly simple vocal and guitar lines, including too the poignant line, “It’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me.”
Matt Berninger’s lyrics remain as edgy and self-aware as they have always been, then, but add a further level of ambivalence as he begins to grow more distant from the average Joes The National have always sung about. This addition of new, lush and conflicting, levels to the same formula leaves the band open to the same old criticisms – on ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, a track lasting four minutes and thirty-six seconds consists of just 13 laconic, repeated lines, whilst on ‘Little Faith’, the band stick to their Springsteenish roots with some defiance – it also makes them, like Vampire Weekend earlier in the year, a more confident and (that dread word) authentic proposition. This is what The National do, and they are getting even better at doing it.