At a gathering at my apartment this past Saturday, I was talking with a few guys about music and such when The National’s “Mistaken for Strangers” came up in the music rotation, prompting a story about how, at a Boston show a couple of years back, lead singer Matt Berninger downed an entire bottle of wine during the performance before proceeding to smash the bottle. I’ve never had the privilege of seeing The National live, and though that anecdote strikes up an odd image, it’s not entirely surprising. The band seems to champion that segment of folks stuck in the middle and damned to stay there, people who’ve left behind their days of chugging Keystone Light with their college career but whose daily trivialities still provoke the onset of that maddeningly irresistible urge to treat oneself to a hangover, people whose attachment to their office chair, frustration with company politics, and overexposure to ambient fluorescent lighting have initiated the slow but accelerating descent down that slippery slope toward sociopathy. And even if you’re the type to appreciate the humor that being surrounded by morons affords and can take just about everything with a boulder of salt, you don’t have to look far to find a real-life analog for The National’s protagonists, like just over the cubicle wall at the Paxil-popper in the next desk. Yeah, their songs are for that poor motherfucker. And even if you’re still in high school or college, like many readers will certainly be, listen up, friends– you might not relate now, but this is what you bastards have to look forward to.
But maybe I’m reading too much between the lines, attributing intentionality that isn’t really there. It’s true that Berninger’s lyrics often carry universally applicable sentiments– he sings “Sorrow found me when I was young,” and “I don’t want to get over you,” on the appropriately titled “Sorrow”, thoughts that could come from the mind of any auto mechanic, construction worker or cake baker. However, his self-serious, weary tone seems most representative of the modern office drone, and when he offers up, “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out,” on “Afraid of Anyone”, it sounds like pure middle-class disaffection. Aside from the financial woes alluded to in the single “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, we’re not given too many details about the causes behind Berninger’s ruminations. While this might just be to leave them open to interpretation and aid in relatability, it may also be that there isn’t any significant reason at all. His need for escape expressed in “Lemonworld” suggests a tug-of-war between melodrama and anhedonia, a mind burdened by the tedium of charmed suburban life that leads us to needlessly magnify trifles until we just want to let go of it all. In such a way, The National’s music in general, and High Violet specifically, probably wouldn’t have made much sense a generation ago but provide a sort of neat personification of right now, the modern era of adult ennui.
So I guess it goes without saying that High Violet isn’t light listening or great driving music for summer. However, anyone coming into it with Boxer and Alligator under their belts certainly knew better than to expect that from it, anyway. Musically, it’s a similar record with subtle orchestrations, and like Boxer, it’s a tremendous drumming album, with Bryan Devendorf’s bombastic work behind the kit featured prominently in the mix. Despite its primarily slow, creeping melodies, it’s hard to refrain from tapping out the rhythms on whatever horizontal surface is in front of you. Piano and gently post-punk-tinged guitar brings it all to a slow boil that varies from ominous, like the almost Interpol-esque “Anyone’s Ghost”, to refined and folky, like “Runaway”. Their dark, brooding sound is illuminated like chiaroscuro by bright orchestral accompaniments, which usually accentuate the feeling of disenchantment. Only rarely, as on “England”, the horn arrangement sounds pompous, ceremonial, almost majestic. And certainly not least of all is perhaps The National’s most recognizable quality, Berninger’s rich baritone. Despite sounding thoroughly fatigued most of the time, there’s so much depth of expression in his voice that he commands attention like few other vocalists can. All the band’s elements coalesce in a remarkably cohesive way to elicit the desired moods.
Much like Boxer, High Violet is the type of album that might take a little time to resonate. There’s very little in the way of overt hooks, but looking back on Boxer, songs like “Mistaken for Strangers” and the one-two punch of “Green Gloves” and “Slow Show” remain firmly entrenched in my brain. In much the same way, High Violet was a joy the first time around, and better with each successive spin. Who’s to say which of its moments are going to stand the test of time for me years down the road? I’ll say this: it will be a real pleasure finding out.