Other than Vampire Weekend’s “Contra” and maybe Spoon’s “Transference” (I have not yet heard The Hold Steady’s latest), not much music of the Pitchfork variety has blown my mind in 2010. In fact, for one who dishes out way too much money on music, if you looked at my credit card bill, I’ve actually saved some money this year.
With that said, I’ve been anticipating The National’s latest for some time. Worried that it wouldn’t match the brilliance of 2007’s “Boxer,” I came to it with high expectations-usually a recipe for disappointment. Fortunately, this five-piece from Brooklyn has put together their best record yet. Few albums in these digital days deliver the satisfaction of a truly complete album- this is one of them.
If you’re new to The National, understand that it takes three-to-four spins to appreciate Matt Berninger’s distinctive baritone, but once you’re hooked, there are few voices in indie rock that compare.
Most of the album is haunting and dark. Fishing for meaning in indie rock is always dangerous, but suffice it to say, themes of insecurity, fear, depression, and failure are effectively communicated through both the music and lyrics here. I’m also going to advance the argument that the overall progression of “High Violet” reflects a bit of a Law and Gospel paradigm, where death is very real, but so is redemption.
The album gets particularly interesting during the chorus of “Conversation 16,” where Berninger sings “I was afraid I’d eat your brain / ‘Cause I’m evil.” This cry, strangely enough, has resonated with me quite a bit over the past week. It reminds me of the radical language of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer excised in the ’79. Phrases such as “There is no health in us” and “have mercy upon us, miserable offenders,” seem to offend even orthodox Christians. I find it fascinating when my fellow seminarians tell me to focus on transformation as opposed to human brokenness because “no one wants to hear that they’re a monster.” And yet, members of The National, who by no means are a “Christian” band, sing this message of brokenness at the top of their lungs with legions of fans following suit.
Two songs later, on the concluding track entitled “’Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” they leave the listener with the message that “it’s all been forgiven / Swans are a swimming.” This anthemic conclusion follows the nervous breakdown that is the first ten songs. After experiencing “a terrible love,” “little faith,” and being “afraid of everyone,” the listener is left with a message of hope, even if the band-and indeed sometimes even Christians-only half believe it.
It is albums like “High Violet” that undo my disillusionment with the contemporary indie music scene. Here The National have given us a masterpiece that serves to justify hope in the “genre” even when so many of their peers have fallen short.
P.S. Here’s the official music video for “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, the lead-off single: