One of the signs of a great band is that their weaknesses, while just as present as in their less satisfying contemporaries, still kind of work for them. It’s true that most song lyrics lie rather flat on the page, but if I told you that one of the things I want to praise about High Violet was the lyrics and then quoted “It’s a terrible love and I’m walkin’ with spiders” or “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees” or “I had a hole in the middle where the lightning went through”, would you believe me? And yet, while I can’t really argue that those examples don’t read as a little silly, in practice they’re not just acceptable; they’re evocative, even moving.
It’s not just Matt Berninger’s rumpled baritone that sells those lines. While Berninger’s command of his instrument continues to deepen and occasionally surprise — here he sings “Didn’t wanna be your ghost / Didn’t wanna be anyone’s ghost” with the truculence of a bowed-head kid kicking at the gravel, and “But I won’t be no runaway, ‘cuz I won’t run” with a perfect blend of fatigue and resolve — the whole band displays that kind of quiet mastery. While Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s guitars are less aggressive than ever on High Violet (there’s no “Abel”s or “Mr. November”s here, not even a “Mistaken for Strangers”), they’re still all over the record, from the malfunctioning-radio surges of the beginning of “Terrible Love” on down. Whether it’s the plangent leads of “Anyone’s Ghost” or the steady, distorted strum of “Lemonworld”, the National continue to be the world’s least likely great guitar band. Meanwhile, the rhythm section of Scott and Bryan Devendorf continue to lend these quiet, almost stately songs a deceptively deep sense of propulsion, which is part of the reason why such a relentlessly mid-tempo set of songs can spring to life in such varied and lively ways.
In a sense, Bryan Devendorf’s drumming is a microcosm of the National’s music. Both band and drummer play with the kind of casual virtuosity that can sound like they’re really not doing anything new or interesting; but on closer inspection, what makes Devendorf and the National so compelling is the way they sneak in all sorts of interesting nuances and complexities into what seems so straightforward at first. Listen to Devendorf’s drums on a song like “Conversation 16” or the ostensibly balladic “Sorrow” and it becomes clear that this is a band that’s increasingly at ease with its now-signature mix of the skittish and the comforting, the reassuring and the despairing. While High Violet is even less sonically presupposing than the excellent Boxer, the band haven’t made an album of nothing more than “Val Jester”s and “Racing Like a Pro”s (not that those aren’t great songs). The fact that so much of their strength lies in the subtleties is why it’s both so easy to dismiss the National’s music if its doesn’t hit you immediately, and why fans can go on for great lengths about how great that piano melody was, that bit of phrasing, that rolling drum line, that production choice.
And of course, there’s the songs. For years now the National have been singing about the city and wine and girls and maybe growing up a little, and if Boxer saw them embracing the bittersweet sting of maturity and nostalgia, High Violet follows hard on its heels with a set of songs about New York and Ohio, about the terrible, undertow pull of a (gasp) settled, normal life, about being a little in love with melancholy but also being self-aware enough to realize that love is a little ridiculous and self-destructive. Becoming an adult is a slow processes that involves thinking that you’re not a certain kind of person, and then waking up one day and realizing that yeah, you are; recently, National songs have been about coming to terms with that as much as anything else. When Berninger sings “I was afraid I would eat your brains / ‘Cuz I’m evil” or “I was a comfortable kid / But I don’t think about it much anymore” or “I don’t even think to make corrections” or “All the very best of us string ourselves up for love” or “What makes you think I’m enjoying being led to the flood?”, he and the rest of the band are feeling around the edges of something big and dark and mundane. It’s not that the National’s music (or its members’ lives, one hopes) are devoid of joy or levity, it’s that High Violet summons up perfectly and terribly the sneaking suspicion you start getting in your 20s that possibilities are closing off, that your life might not turn out the way you wanted it to, and that there’s probably no-one else to blame but yourself.
For years, loving the National’s music has often meant reveling in the twinge of pain that comes when someone else manages to perfectly pin down and dissect a little piece of your psyche, which is why fans can get so inarticulate when trying to talk about what’s great about the band. As Felix Mendelssohn said, “The thoughts that are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.” High Violet‘s greatness, above beyond the fact that it’s a gorgeously arranged and performed set of songs of surprising tensile strength and grace, is that it rests its finger on some uncomfortably relevant truths about life after you no longer have the mental, physical, social or emotional wherewithal to spend every night at the bar and leaving the Silver City for somewhere quieter starts seeming like a good move. Anyone who loves this record probably has a very exact idea of how it touches on their own life, but most of us probably aren’t going to want to share.