The National - High Violet
High Violet, The National's fifth studio album, and their first on 4AD, is a real stunner.
This is the thinking person's break up album. Matching the mournful eloquence of Nick Cave with the textural splendor of Elbow, the songs exude a lushness that overrides the sad introspection of vocalist Matt Berninger's lyrics. The music is all on an even keel. There are no grand gestures or sweeping statements, just a slow and steady procession of ultra confessional songs which speak of heartbreak, loneliness and grief - and do so beautifully.
The album opens with the brooding 'Terrible Love' with Bernringer sounding like he can barely get out of bed: 'It's terrible love that I'm walking with spiders....It's quiet company.' Things don't seem to be improving much with the aptly titled 'Sorrow', with lyrics that could have come straight out of Ian Curtis's diary: "Sorrow found me when I was young / Sorrow waited / Sorrow won / Sorrow that put me on the pills / It's in my honey it's in my milk." The theme of heartbreak continues with the wonderful 'Anyone's Ghost', the stark punchy music following behind Berninger's gorgeous baritone. 'I'm Afraid of Everyone' is the musical equivalent of losing control, the raw emotion almost too painful to listen to. The haunted music and sad backing vocals help to extenuate the protagonist's matter of fact account of his breakdown: "I'm afraid of everyone / With my kid on my shoulders I try / not to hurt anybody I like / But I don't have the drugs to sort it out."
'Bloodbuzz Ohio' and 'Lemonworld' pick up the tempo and is a welcome respite from the album's bleak first half. The lovely 'Runaway' gives us hope that our hero may be coming to terms with his troubles: "But I won't be no runaway /Cause I won't run." The album comes full circle with the trio of sings that close the album. The heart-wrenching grief that threatened to finish off the protagonist at the start seems to have abated somewhat with the singer turning a corner and facing his sorrow head on. 'Conversation 16' feels like a dialogue Bernringer is preparing for his lover if and when he sees her again. The stupendous 'England' has him musing what she could be doing as he wonders alone thousands miles away, and the cathartic 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks' feel almost like hope with the uplisfting music adding a bit of optimism to Bernringer's words: "Vanderlylle cry baby cry/ Now it’s all been forgiven / Swans are a swimmin’ / I’ll explain everything to the geeks."
This is an album of acute pain and sorrow; bleak, beautiful and painfully honest. What could be narcissistic self-indulgence in less skillful hands is masterful, trial by fire brilliance. Already being bandied about as "Album of the Year" by some critics, this is certainly one of 2010's highlights so and sure to put these Ohio boys squarely on the map.