The National are the quietly admired if unfettered alt-rock sons of Brooklyn. After five studio albums, an immediately distinctive sound and a decade together, their new release is inspiring serious anticipation.
High Violet is not a departure, but an arrival. An appeal, a catharsis and an evolution, they have perhaps arrived definitively.
The usual elements are present on opening track Terrible Love – the fastidious rhythms punctuated with unpredictable accents, the warm, small hour keys and thumbing bass, the guitars that seem to shift and swell from murky depths before breaking and crashing with unbridled glory.
As the album begins to move through its gears, it is clearly shaped with a clarity of purpose and production previously unrealised. Added to this are beautifully rendered choral harmonies, used sparingly on Sorrow then looped on Afraid of Everyone. The horns used on England, too, are signs of a band finding their natural voice.
Rarely is a band’s ambience so closely tied to the subject of its lyrics. Matt Berninger’s vocals, crooned in that soft, cavernous baritone, range from poetic to expressionistic to oblique. “Cover me in rag and bones, sympathy” he sings on Sorrow, whilst on the elegiac England he draws us with “You must be somewhere in London/ You must be lovin’ life in the rain.”
But Berninger’s confessions and his band’s tragi-epic melodies are not just personal reductions of angst, more a deep plea to a sense of shared existence. If not immediately placeable, they’re metaphors of genetic empathy.
Although not verifiably a political band, this is an album born of its times. Following on from Boxer’s Fake Empire, the anthem about liberal impotency in the face of neoconservatism which accompanied Obama on his presidential campaign, we are given Afraid of Everyone, which seems to re-imagine the dystopic aftermath of Katrina: “With my kid on my shoulders I try, not to hurt anyone.” On Lemmonworld, he sings of foreign wars: “I gave my heart to the army, the only sentimental thing I can think of.”
Subtly possessed, unfeigned and gradually vivid, The National’s avant-garde envelopments are the antithesis to the layerings of enameled, apathetic cool hallmarked by those other Kings of New York, The Strokes.
High Violet is a baring invitation, an echo of existentialism that is absolutely universal. The National may be awaiting Godot, but they have invited you to sit beside.