The National, the favored sons of Ditmas Park, have a new record out this week called High Violet and I have a few things to say about it.
Over the past year I’ve started to notice how much this band feels more and more like dad rock for the New York Magazine set, and I’m not surprised Pitchfork’s Andrew Gaerig beat me to print, albeit in a more balanced review than his site’s analytics might demand.
High Violet is solid, serviceable, inventive stuff at times, and downright engaging without ever being overwrought or – at their best – much over three minutes. It certainly feels more “mature” than most of what’s coming out of the borough these days, but nothing as complicated as Steve Reich makes it sound in a recent New York Times profile or grandly cinematic as seemingly always mentioned. As Gaerig says, it’s boilerplate indie.
And yet I’m still not sure where I fall with this band or this record. I just know I can’t stop talking about it for reasons other than the music, and I know I’m not alone. It’s a polarizing group playing non-polarizing songs.
l’d still recommend the live show to friends who might get out of the house once a month, and for the reader in your group I generally find myself mulling over the lyrics and themes exactly as Joe Keyes describes it at Emusic:
Berninger’s great gift is his ability to fish lyrics from a rushing stream of subconscious — they’re all sense-imagery and inference and shadowplay. Written out on paper end-to-end they don’t make a lot of literal sense; instead, they trip triggers set deep in the brain that, taken cumulatively, provide a big-picture sense of what’s going on song-to-song. This is part of the reason why the National can be so off-putting to so many: if you’re not jacked into that same series of signs and signifiers as Berninger — knowing instinctively, for example, that “What makes you think I enjoy being led to the flood?” means “I hate fighting as much as you do” — the songs can start to seem nonsensical.
However, I’d still argue for the casual listener those lyrics fall into that post-SM world of good-because-they’re-not-bad. I just think people connect with Berninger for the cohesive world he creates over the course of ten, twelve, fourteen songs, something that shows you don’t need to write a concept album about the Civil War to be considered literate or even patient with your extended thoughts.
So yes, I admit there’s plenty to love here (drummer Bryan Devendorf, for one), but also plenty to ignore, and plenty to root for in the back story alone – hell, they outlasted Clay Your Hands Say Yeah! – and all are reasons to own this, their fifth long player. However, three years after Boxer and five since their breakout Alligator the band’s brand is beginning to feel like a cultural accessory.
And maybe that’s where all roads should lead in the end.
Celebrating the release on Tuesday, The National opened the High Violet Annex in an empty space next to Other Music, and will be announcing events over the next few days including a heavily rumored live appearance before their sold out show at BAM this Saturday, May 15. While the pop up concept isn’t so novel anymore, the idea of curating entire bills made up of friends, musicians and artists – not to mention sending serious foot traffic to Other Music – is a great thing to see. Personally, it feels like a more honest nod to the borough than inserting another Nico or Sufjan credit in the linear notes.
It might be sad to say so early, but the most interesting thing about High Violet has little to do with the music – which I’ll admit is excellent, if boilerplate – and more about what this band has grown to represent. For all the handicapping and denying themselves another “Mr. November” or “Abel” that might put this release over the top (as Keyes notes), it’s precisely those moments along with the car crash ideas of any young band that I’m going to miss most. I’m not so interested in watching The National grow-by-means-of-polite-restraint with every mid-tempo mood piece to come, but the idea of stepping aside all together (in the case of the Annex) feels like an appropriate and well-deserved graduation before larger stages to come.
And so, in perhaps in the most backhanded recommendation this year: buy this record. These guys have kids to feed and your dinner guests are tired of your party mix.