Anniverseries: The National - High Violet
High Violet, The National’s fifth album in their eight-LP discography, feels definitive after ten years. It stands as a culmination of sorts, a coming-together of everything the band had put out up to that point: the song-writing and lyricism of The National and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, paired with the darker aggression of Alligator (‘Abel’ and ‘Mr. November’ are still some of their most hard-hitting), and the ‘grown-up’ feel that Boxer encapsulated.
Originally released on 11 May 2010, it’s an album universally adored among fans, with the critical recognition and chart rankings to prove it. It’s the album that brought the largest glut of new fans and essentially their breakthrough into mainstream success; indeed, it aided their nomination for International Breakthrough Act at the 2011 Brit Awards in no small part. It’s the album that took them to festival headliner status, made them household names, and yet it’s an album just as loved by the hardcore fans who spend their time telling other fans to give the self-titled debut another listen and recognise it for the alt-country-folk masterpiece it is.
The record contains within it tracks that have since become descriptors of the Ohio band's work. ‘Sorrow,’ for example, is categorically The National. The instrumentation seems impenetrably dense until Matt Berninger’s baritone cuts through with a lyric that sets the band up for a first-time listener: “Sorrow found me when I was young / Sorrow waited, sorrow won.” It’s a cliché at this point that they are ‘the sad band’ – the members affectionately referred to by fans as ‘sad dads –’ but such a dismissal has always felt unfair. Ironically, the album that perhaps plays the largest role in them earning their status has been the one that brought them the most new fans.
‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,’ which has since become a devoted set closer, has also become incredibly important in the story of the band. Live, The National is far more high-energy than their recorded work would sometimes suggest , the lyrics screamed at the audience as the instruments are thrashed to an inch of their lives. But at the end of it all the band often comes to the front of the stage for an acoustic-driven, sing-along rendition of that finds stadiums of people singing “All the very best of us / String ourselves up for love.”
High Violet is a perfect album for understanding the kind of lyrics Matt Berninger favours. When he sings in ‘Sorrow,’ “I don’t wanna get over you,” it devastates with clarity and simplicity, and in ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ when he sings of being “Carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees”, the words hook in and run themselves ragged around your mind. Later, in ‘Conversation 16’ – a tense, scrambling song that constantly threatens to burst at the seams – when Berninger sings “I was afraid I’d eat your brains / ‘Cause I’m evil,” we get the moment of awkward, sort-of-funny levity that so often defines those tense uncomfortable moments in everyday life.
It’s difficult to write about The National without focusing on the lyrics. The instrumentation has always been superb: layered and dense, deceptively complex, but it was always impossible to ignore that baritone that could almost be felt in the own chest of the listener. Subsequent albums experimented further with synths and sonic palettes that had been unexplored up to that point on The National’s albums, and reflectively Berninger’s melodies started to change, pushing higher, drawing out longer, in ways only hinted at by High Violet.
While none of The National’s discography has aged particularly, none of them can stand up alongside each other release as comfortably as High Violet. Every album before had hints of what was to come, and every album since has had echoes of its certainty as an expression of the band’s identity, even as it evolved and progressed to what it is today.
High Violet was a tipping point for the band, but as they pushed themselves over the edge into indie stardom they never stopped doing it their own way or being unabashedly, anxiously, themselves.
The 10th anniversary expanded edition (3xLP) of High Violet is out now on 4AD.