When did The National become one of the defining indie rock acts of the decade? Only a few years ago, they were a band of morose Midwesterners, singing in code to a marginal audience. Their early albums were proudly middle-brow, perched between meat-and-potatoes populism and art-school pretension. Sometime during the 10 years since their first album, a reappraisal occurred, a retconning that suddenly placed them as one of the most respected and fervently loved indie bands of the last decade. Tepidly received at the time of their release, their early albums popped up, not unexpectedly, on many an end-of-decade list.
The high esteem in which The National is currently held still feels like something of a surprise. For a while, it seemed like Matt Berninger’s lyrical approach was as limited as his vocal range. Were they not so terribly serious, Berninger’s dour croon and freely-associative compositions bordered on Leonard Cohen parody. But around 2007, when Boxer was about to be released, it looked like The National had finally grasped the respect for which they had been stretching. Their association with Sufjan Stevens certainly didn’t hurt their reputation, while their lyrics were more mature. And in this case, maturity meant being portentous and vague, with songs like “Fake Empire” begging for interpretation within the context of the Bush years. The National had clearly swapped sophomorism for self-importance and stumbled upon a recipe for critical success.
And yet none of their previous albums, not even Boxer, proved that they were ready for the impossible expectations by which their fanbase had doomed them. The National should have fumbled. They didn’t.
High Violet isn’t simply The National’s best album; it’s already one of the strongest album of this young decade and will likely continue to be, even in another nine years from now. It would take a strong show of cynicism to deny, at the very least, the craft and care that have gone into these songs. The album is a lean cut album, with nary a dull patch or wasted moment. Berninger’s lyrics remain oblique, but he’s tightened his writing, grown out of his self-consciousness. “Sorrow found me when I was young/ Sorrow waited, sorrow won,” he sings on the album’s second track, restraining his diction and keeping it simple enough to affect, without seeming affected.
Lyrical restraint isn’t the only thing Berninger and company have learned. On “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” The National have found their strongest hook since “Mr. November.” Berninger sells the lyrics “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees/ I’ll never marry, but Ohio don’t remember me” with impeccably assured delivery. It’s the kind of moment that promotes bands to main stages, sends them around the globe. It’s a marvelous, cathartic song, one that nods to their modest, regional origins and their former anonymity; it’ll also be a concert highlight, one designed for festival sing-alongs, for crowds of shivery spines worldwide. Luckily, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” isn’t some token anthem; on High Violet, they’re in far less a mood to tease than they had been on Boxer. The band aims for the rafters, repeatedly, and gets there with every try.
Berninger doesn’t deserve all the credit. Bryan Devendorf’s drumming is high in the mix on “Conversation 16,” providing an otherwise contemplative song much-needed urgency. Likewise, the bass-heavy “Anyone’s Ghost” — sounding like “I Turn My Camera On” played at three-quarter speed — highlights Aaron Dessner’s considerable contributions to The National’s identifiable sound. And the backing vocals — which once again feature Sufjan Stevens, as well as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon — are exquisite throughout. In fact, High Violet’s collaborative construction might be its greatest strength. Sufjan’s influence is audible throughout, especially the piano on “England,” which almost sounds like it was lifted straight off Illinois. And with compositional assistance from The Arcade Fire’s Richard Parry and the ubiquitous Nico Muhly, even High Violet’s slowest tracks, like “Lemonworld,” are lush, layered, and deeply moving.
By embracing immediacy and toning down the navel-gazing, The National have finally created an album deserving of all their earlier acclaim. They might still be middle-brow, but they’ve outpaced even their most accomplished peers. High Violet is a tremendous record, middle-brow par excellence.