May 9, 2010

New Music: The National

In many ways, High Violent picks up where Boxer left off. Musically, the band is at the top of its game: very conscious of atmosphere and mood, offering spacious settings for Matt Berninger's tortured ballads (the guitar flourishes, the brass horns, the driving jungle beats, and the choral backdrop of "Afraid of Everyone" are pitch perfect). Berninger has never sounded more in love with his melancholy and normally I'd consider this much brooding a bit tiresome. But, as Berninger has demonstrated over and over, he knows how to wear his misery. "Sorrow" is particularly depressing, as Berninger lists each possible avenue (his body, his honey, his milk) as a source of heartache. I just wish I could give him a hug. Especially after a song like "Lemonworld," which follows former soldier who escapes the city to visit his estranged children.

It may sound trite, but I'm quite impressed with the way he's been able to harness and channel his sadness. Berninger shows no signs of letting up. Nor do the melodies. High Violet is more accessible, more anthemic, more consistently upbeat and hook-driven than Alligator, perhaps even more than Boxer. It's commendable that The National can make such a solid album of new material and retain such a familiar sound, but you have to wonder how long this can last. As long as Berninger's songwriting is this strong, I guess, there's no reason to worry. "Bloodbuzz Ohio," which falls somewhere between biblical allegory and confession, and the piano-based "England," an epic slow-builder with lush orchestration and a triumphant swell of catharsis (this late in the album, I think we deserve it), are probably the album's most fully realized tracks, possibly The National's best yet. And I could go on. There really aren't any duds here. My only real criticism is that Berninger's vocal delivery is too one-dimensional, but things get better towards the end of the album, with "England" and especially "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" (the closest thing The National have ever done to a feel good sing-along).

Berninger is quite up front about his angst (still undeniably an urban kind of angst, where the social realm always ends up being tragically alienating); actually, the mood and aesthetic remind me of Mad Men. Don Draper and Berninger seem to be working through the same sorts of demons. I think Don would appreciate High Violet; well, at least he'd know how to sell it.

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