The National’s superlative fifth album, High Violet, is arriving at just the right moment. After starting out as a gloomy mood-rock quintet in 2001, the National has morphed into a so-called “big tent” indie-rock band that can pull in everyone from the coolest Williamsburg denizens to beer-swilling loners in the Midwest. Unlike just about every rock band that got big after modest blog-fueled fame, the National (whose members grew up in Cincinnati but now live in Brooklyn) haven’t grown by going broad; they’ve gotten markedly better with each release. To that end, High Violet is their crowning achievement. It splits the difference between the wilting melodrama of Boxer (2007) and the cerebral gusto of Alligator (2005), delivering a potential anthem in each of its 11 tracks. A warning: The National’s fan base is about to expand in a big way.
In the three years since Boxer, the National have repeatedly told everyone that High Violet was going to be their “pop” record, and from the opening churn of “Terrible Love,” it’s clear this isn’t the cheery record the guys in the band thought it was going to be. This is still an album heavy on atmosphere. Every track here would work splendidly as the soundtrack for walking a dark city right before dawn. A lot of that has to do with frontman Matt Berninger, whose lyrical abstractions on “Sorrow” (“Sorrow found me when I was young/ Sorrow waited, sorrow won”), “Anyone’s Ghost,” and the Boss-like “Bloodbuzz Ohio” prevent this from being anything approaching chipper. But anyone who was at least halfway aware of the National had to know the talk of pop was at least slightly facetious. In terms of this being a more polished and accomplished record, that’s for real. Berninger definitely sounds more confident here. His assurance in his half-whispered vocals has grown, and he’s less willing to hide behind the highly considered musical walls his bandmates are creating.
Speaking of the other guys in the National (brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf and twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner), they’re often overlooked due to Berninger’s magnetic drunk-businessman persona. On High Violet they showcase the benefits of their classical training, layering string arrangements, horns, ethereal backing vocals, foggy drums, muscular bass lines and stabbing guitars into nearly every empty space. As much as parsing out what Berninger is really singing about, the thing that keeps High Violet interesting is honing in the little parts that make these songs special. The orchestral strums of “Little Faith” give way to the ghostly howls of the backing vocals on “Afraid of Everyone” give way to the monolithic drums of “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” The hard guitar bangs of “Lemonworld” breakthrough as hard as the regal horn figures on “England.” Every song slowly reveals its musical charms on repeat listenings, unfolding at the same rate as Berninger’s metaphors.
High Violet is one of those rare albums where a band’s rising profile and rising talent meet in a perfect storm of anticipation and excellence. It’s the sound of a band refining their approach while proving the Internet’s bromides about their excellence. From its painstaking production to its dense lyrical constructs to its mammoth choruses, High Violet is likely to be one of the year’s best.