I’ve made little secret of the fact that my favorite album of 2010 is the Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever. Come December, I had thought to do a year-end list of my favorite non-Hold Steady albums of 2010. But it appears the National have gone and fucked that up for everyone. Spoiler alert: the best non-Hold Steady album of 2010 is High Violet by the National. So I guess this year, more than most years, it’s especially pointless to bother with all that year-end best-of stuff. Which is actually kind of nice. I’m having a busy year that might (hopefully) end up getting busier. So I’ll take the time-savers where I can get them.
How good is High Violet? I hate to bust out movie-poster words like “stunning,” “edge-of-your-seat thrill ride”, and “based on the novel by the author of The Horse Whisperer” but if the shoe fits, you must acquit. Or something. Okay, those last two really aren’t appropriate to what the National have achieved with their follow-up to 2007’s also awesome Boxer, but if I had to give you a single-word assessment of High Violet, I’m pretty sure I’d stick with “stunning.” If I had to give you three words? “Really fucking stunning.” Seriously, if you’re short on time and can’t read this whole review, just take the next sentence as a summary. High Violet is so good that I must officially elevate it to the level of Exactly as Good as Heaven Is Whenever. If a Time Cop came to my house and said that I could only take two albums from 2010 with me into the future, I’d not hesitate at all to choose High Violet and Heaven Is Whenever. I’ve gone on long enough about the latter record, but the former is pretty much eleven straight tracks of goosebump-inducing greatness.
If you’ve read Bollocks! from back in or near the very beginning (my very first post, back in 2008, was about how the National and Band of Horses had both made the best album of 2007. At this point, with a few years’ reflection, I’d give the title solely to the National), you probably know that I’d surrender various non-essential parts of my anatomy to be able to sing like Matt Berninger and that hasn’t changed. Since I don’t hear people running around in the street singing the man’s praises, I’m going to continue to suggest that Berninger is the most underrated vocalist working right now. That mournful baritone, which can occasionally rise to a scream (listen to “Abel” and “Mr. November” from Alligator for excellent examples of this), is rich, distinctive, and perfectly suited to the bummed out, self-deprecating songs that tend to end up on National records. And, as a lyricist, the dude who correctly observed, “We’re half awake/ in a fake empire” is still sharp as ever. There are myriad lyrical highlights on High Violet, my current favorite being, “You and your sister live in a Lemonworld/ I want to sit in and die.” I like the sunny imagery of a Lemonworld (whatever that is) contrasted with Berninger’s gloomy Gus narrator who wants to die in the middle of all that cutesy, citrusy splendor. If you dig the metaphor, that kind of conflict permeates High Violet (and many of the National’s best songs on their other albums), but the melodies are cranked to eleven so it’s hard to feel as bad as Berninger’s narrators do. “Sorrow,” for instance, is a poppy paean to being bummed: “I don’t wanna get over you,” sung over snapping drums and ooo-ing background vocals.
And of course, Berninger’s lyrics are embedded in the sumptuous arrangements of his bandmates: the brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner and the brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf. From the haunting, chill-inducing opener “Terrible Love” right on through the clunkily-named (but still beautiful) “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, the Dessners and Devendorfs lay down the most solid of foundations for Berninger’s observations about love, drugs (“I don’t have the drugs to sort it out,” he sings on “Afraid of Anyone”), and general working-guy angst/paranoia in 21st century America (“I still owe money/ to the money I owe”). It’s been widely reported that the band argued a lot while recording and mixing this album but the end result is… hell, let’s just say it: High Violet is gorgeous, lyrically and melodically, and it’s the best National album yet, which is saying something.
Previous National albums have required time to grow on me but High Violet, from the opening strains of “Terrible Love”, made me sit the fuck still and listen. It has grabbed hold of me and it will not let go – not that I want it to. I figured to love this album, but the extent is a little unnerving. I almost can’t stop listening to it long enough to tell you how great it is. As I’ve been drafting this post, I’ve found myself frequently pausing just to listen to the music; the way the horns swell and sink again on “Runaway,” (one of Berninger’s best-ever vocal performances. When he sings, “We got another thing coming undone,” it just about breaks me in half) the subtle harmonies on “Afraid of Anyone,” and the second time through, I caught that “Conversation 16” sees Berninger supposing he’s a zombie (“I was afraid I’d eat your brains/ because I’m evil”). And don’t even get me started on the end of “England.” Holy shit.
Wait just a goddamn minute. “Afraid of Anyone” is… is it? It is. It’s about being a fucking parent! Sonofabitch. “With my kid on my shoulders I try/ not to hurt anybody I like.” It’s totally about that protective paranoia that recent father Matt Berninger is feeling in public with his kid. If you’ve read Bollocks! or talked to me about music for more than two minutes, you know that there’s one thing I know is true: if you write a song about your kid(s), that song will suck and, most likely, your band will start to suck. It’s like invoking an ancient curse upon your own face by the rock gods (if you really wanna hold up “Tears in Heaven” as the exception that proves the rule you can do that. But I sentence you to listen to everything Clapton did after that without vomiting. You can’t do it. So shut up). Tom Waits did one on Orphans called “Take Care of All of My Children,” but that was a cover of an old gospel tune. He didn’t write it about his kids. But Berninger seems to be talking about his child on “Afraid of Anyone.” And he wrote the song. So hear me, ye skeptics, and know I speak the truth: High Violet is so awesome, so skull-numbingly brilliant, that not only could Matt Berninger put a song on there about his kid without ruining the album, but that song itself is also awesome.
The National has just blown my fucking mind.