The National – High Violet

You might have noticed that there’s often some cute anecdote accompanying every album review I write. It’s a little grating to me, but there is a justification (equally dull I’m afraid). It’s often these albums with which I have some external personal association that remain in mind to the point that I want to write about it here on the blog. This album in particular, because this is a band I probably would never have paid any attention to under normal circumstances.

However, if you want to skip this yawnsome yarn, jump several paragraphs down to the review heading below. Or be adventurous and read the whole thing, it’s only about 1400 words long…

Last year Valve announced Portal 2, a game which I was quite excited for. Later in that year, there was some mention of its soundtrack, which would include not only a Jonathan Coulton song as the first did, but a song by “indie-rock” band The National. This notion caused me some trouble. I didn’t want some “indie-rock” band called The Something being shoehorned into a game so heavy on its own particular atmosphere. It seemed like it would be disruptive. At worst it seemed like maybe Valve were going in a different direction with development of Portal 2…

So then Portal 2 comes out this April, and is great by the way, but played all the way through it on that first day I did not notice this song by The National anywhere. I wondered if perhaps cooler heads had prevailed and it had been cut, or if it was actually in there but fit seamlessly into the Aperture Science setting, or the game’s own semi-generative score that it had not stood out. It actually wasn’t until I began a second play through to scout out some of the secrets I had missed and enjoy the dev commentary that I spotted it.

It’s not like it’s hard to spot you understand, it must have been that I was so focussed on puzzle-solving at that stage, my brain kind of ignored what was on the peripheral. So, off in one corner of a room, there’s a side-room once occupied by background character Rat Man, filled with empty bean cans and manic scribbles all over the walls. Also, a radio playing a little song. So I pick up the Radio, and after a while, there’s singing and it hits me – this is the National. This is that song. And then I sat there and listened to the whole song, and it was actually very good. It fit the tone of the story, of the game, of the world, but also brought a humanising element which is much appreciated in a story mostly about slightly unhinged machines.

So after enjoying this song a couple times, I decided to look them up on wikipedia, where I was shocked to discover, this isn’t some hot new band, they’re all in their late 30s or early 40s. This endeared me for some reason. On youtube I found a video for Bloodbuzz Ohio (see the review), and I was completely sold. I bought this album, apparently their fifth, in HMV a couple days later. It’s not actually all that similar to the song that’s in Portal 2, but I cannot overstate how much this album surprised me. Had I heard it last year, it would probably have been my #1 album of 2010.

Okay folks, so that’s the story out of the way. Now the review. Or if for some bizarre reason you were more interested in reading the background of how I came to buy this album than the review of said album, I guess you can stop now.

The Actual Review

For about a week I kept wanting to call this album "High Velvet".

High Violet is quite the melancholic trip. It’s an album about sadness, loss, depression, alienation, heartache, inadequacy, self-doubt. But it’s warm and richly textured in a way modern music generally isn’t. The opener Terrible Love sets the tone with, big chordal piano, brash frenzied drumming, fuzzy guitars on the verge of breaking up, and what sounds to me like Mellotron flute.

These songs are well-produced and have a certain widescreen scope to them, but still the tone remains very intimate and personal – a contradiction which probably reinforces the album’s lyrical themes. The drums are super-crisp and on point, which leaves a lot of room for everything else – which is good, because they’ve piled on layer upon layer of instrumentation. There’s lots of piano, strings, brass, fuzzy guitars, choral backing vocals, and their signature lead baritone voice, in many cases all at the same time. This is quite a hard balancing act, but this album’s production pulls it off as well as any I’ve heard in recent years.

There’s ups and downs aplenty, mostly downs though. Little Faith and Afraid of Everyone have a nervous desperation to them, tunnelling deep into the psyche where paranoia and petty fears perpetually gnaw at something else beginning with P.

Bloodbuzz Ohio is a slightly more upbeat highlight, with some seriously high-energy drums propelling us through a strange sad refrain. The quiet contemplation of the vocals is counterweighted by the loud stereoscopic clattering of the band going full-steam.  Two particular lyrics stick in the mind “I still owe money, to the money, to the money I owe,” and “I was carried to Ohio in a Swarm of Bees.” Strong imagery indeed. Here’s a video you can digest.

Wonderful song, and video. Plus, I’m sure we can all appreciate a handsome beardy man in a suit wandering aimlessly and singing in a manly baritone. Mmmmmm…

Oh I’m sorry, I got distracted for a moment there.

Yes it’s true, there’s a biting sense of irony present on this album, and a strong current of bitterness running through it – but that isn’t to say it’s just funereal moaning, or doom and gloom. It’s more akin to something I get out of bands like A Silver Mt. Zion, a kind of world-weariness, alienation, disillusion, disenchantment, of being overwhelmed by a “beautiful sadness” or something to that effect… But again, there’s a knowing sense of black humour that shows up from time to time. The lyrical sentiment may be a little moribund, but the music is rich and dynamic and full of colour and life. These are obviously sad songs about the darker sides of life and love, about the malaise and mundanity of it all – but also in juxtaposition, about the quiet and proud bittersweet beauty of these things.

Conversation 16 is one particularly haunting number with ghostly backing voices and mournful cello. It seems to tell a fairly dark story of clinical depression and a failing relationship, but again, there’s a poetic irony at work, a gallows humour. Also, a surprisingly effective reference to zombies of all things.

England on the other hand actually builds to an epic uplifting climax that somehow feels appropriate, despite its contrast to the preceding songs. It’s almost a little victory, a little flame glowing bright in the darkness that they proceed to carry to the top of a hill and hold aloft. Closer Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks is slower and more abstract, drifting along with all the haste of a cloud in a breeze, but in that way it’s a very appropriate ending all about acceptance, forgiveness, of moving on. It’s hardly a triumphant explosion of joy of course, but it seems to quietly exclaim that the pain and the heartbreak of life might maybe be worth it if you can just roll with it? Even just a little?

This record is one of my favourite new discoveries in literally years, and it’s probably the closest to a mainstream record I’ve really been into since Plastic Beach. But inexplicably, The National aren’t huge stars. In a selfish way that’s probably a good thing because nothing kills my buzz like media oversaturation. Better that the band can continue to make their music to a strong loyal audience without compromise than succumb to the requirements of the marketing department.

This is another one of those albums I can genuinely recommend to people who have “normal” musical tastes and tend not to like their music too extreme, so if there’s any of those reading this blog, you should totally try this band out. I am happy to report that they’re swell, and this gosh-darned album is real neat.

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