The National’s High Violet was finally released yesterday and I bought it immediately, even though I’ve been listening to it practically non-stop streaming from the New York Times and, when that ended, from NPR. I haven’t listened to an album this repeatedly since Radiohead’s 1997 OK Computer, one of the greatest albums ever made — to this day, I still listen to a song or two from that album almost every day (they’re surprisingly good songs to run to).
The Washington Post has less love for it:
It’s methodical and smart, filled with inscrutable but deep-sounding ruminations on love and loss. Its twisty, intricate rhythms and lush orchestral passages would take lesser bands years to figure out. It’s carefully made and entirely admirable — and very, very dull, like an Arcade Fire album where nothing happens.
Like most National discs, its charms gradually reveal themselves over repeated listenings, although it might just be the Stockholm syndrome kicking in. How much you like the National depends on how much you’re determined to like the National, a band that seems to delight in making it difficult.
But everyone else seems to like music that can’t be judged after one listen…
They could’ve holed up and recorded an idiosyncratic, expectation-defying mess. Instead they produced an ornate, fussed-over record that sounds like no one other than themselves. Given the amount of flack they take for being a no-frills bore, simply refining their sound was arguably the braver option. They miss, occasionally– the string-drenched closer, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, is too decadent for its own good– but mostly, they construct gorgeous, structurally sound vignettes. There are few bands that could craft a song like “Sorrow”– in which emotion acts as a character and the band turns Berninger’s balladry into a well paced jog– without stumbling over their own ambitions. The guitars on “Afraid of Everyone” actually sound nervous; “England” speaks of cathedrals over properly magisterial drums. These are triumphs of form.
…The National is ruffled and tufted, sometimes embracing pomp and circumstance, sometimes turning its back on it cold. … One of the most stunning pieces on “High Violet” is “England,” which opens with steadily mounting orchestration — rippling piano chords, the low thunder of drums, some pining strings and lofty horns. At its blustery peak, it threatens to topple from its own melodrama. The pleasure is in listening to how often the National scrapes up close to maudlin, only to retreat in the nick of time.
High Violet takes the journey to its next stage. You listen to tracks such as Sorrow, Lemonworld, Conversation 16, to the way Afraid of Everyone’s ghostly backing vocals, its guitar squiggle — which counterpoints Berninger’s existential, state-of-America cry of pain — and Bryan Devendorf’s urgent drumming lift the song into a different realm, and think: this is what music must do, this is what music means. Anything else is froth. A masterpiece.
Goddamn it’s taken a while, but with ‘High Violet’ The National‘s slow and steady evolution can no longer be ignored. This lot are fully grown-up, coloured in and going overground. And if the masses aren’t ready by now, they probably never will be.
There isn’t a bad song on the album, and generally when people say things like that they seem to imply that there are still a few duds here and there. But High Violet is literally free of weak moments… The National should give faith to anyone who has become disillusioned with indie music, anyone who misses a time where it didn’t seem like all the musicians thought they were better than you and you could actually relate to the damn words they were singing. High Violet is another batch of cement to further supplement The National’s already unshakable concrete career.