If this was the ’70s or ’80s, a band like The National would be huge. They’re already pretty big, but had they been around when, say, Springsteen or U2 were beginning to make waves they would be on a par with those stadium giants. And they wouldn’t even have to change a thing. The National’s music is simple but never simplistic and since 2005’s Alligator they’ve been mining a seam of style that doesn’t appear to run dry. There isn’t a song on Alligator, or indeed its follow up Boxer, that is less than excellent. You’ll be happy to know, this is still the case on album number five.
When ‘Terrible Love’ debuted on Fallon a few months back the anticipation levels for this album ratcheted up several hundred notches, all worries about how they would follow the immaculate Boxer instantly dispelled. While the recorded version, which starts the album, is very different, it is just as powerful. ‘Loose wool’ is how they have described the sound and thats as good a description as you’re likely to get. It’s vague and huge, a breathing entity that slowly takes over everything in the course of four minutes. So, pretty much like all of their songs in the last five years then. Bryan Devendorf is in sparkling form again, cementing his place as the most interesting drummer in indie rock, holding everything together, adding interest where its needed, driving everything forward. Guitars chime in and out, supplemented by strings and horns, a further advancement of the partnership that is at the very centre of the band’s existence.
The vocals are, as always, a talking point. Berninger’s lyrics are four minute versions of the great American novel, Mailer in music, all falling apart, elegantly, absorbed into that great mythical American landscape. His delivery is spot on, always with just the right amount of force, emphasising the richness of his limited range. His lines fall over the edge of the musical phrases that swirl below him, lingering just a little too long. As ever, there’s space between the words, enough gaps to crawl inside and inhabit, always inviting personal interpretation. It’s this ability for people to connect that make The National the band they are, it’s why they have such a passionate fan base, every song can be personal if you want it to be. And after the repeat listens which are a matter of course for albums like these, each song is inside your head and they all mean something to you.
The songs on High Violet are progressions on a theme, not exactly sounding like anything they’ve done before but utterly familiar. From the melancholy of ‘Sorrow’ (‘Sorrow found me when I was young, sorrow waited, sorrow won’) through the paranoid, defending his family with an orange umbrella, neurosis of ‘Afraid of Everyone’ to the cathartic, peaen-to-home of ‘Bloodbuzz, Ohio’, the album just keeps on with the instant classics. ‘Lemonworld’ takes it down a notch, beginning the last phase of the album. ‘Conversation 16’ tinkles with black humour, ‘I was afraid I’d eat your brains, because I’m evil’. ‘England’ is a slow build that breaks just when you can’t take it anymore. Closer ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ is the kind of grand song The National seem to pull out at will, ‘All the very best of us string ourselves up,’ repeats Berninger, over and over again. ‘The waters are rising,’ he says, sounding like a captain willing to go down with the ship.
So, after it’s finished, and after you’ve pressed play again, because you will press play again, what next? That’s always the question with a band as good as this, where do you go now? The great thing about The National is that they’ll go somewhere and we’ll all be asked to come along, not to follow but to accompany them on their journey through the landscape of middle-aged, middle-class America. It’s been a great journey so far and it just keeps getting better. Five albums in, The National are just getting started.