The National are one of those special bands where if you stopped people in the street and asked if they were fans, most wouldn’t know who they are. Despite this, they have a huge global following built over nearly two decades of releasing music. This weekend, they were in London to headline the Saturday night of the inaugural All Points East festival. This gives us the perfect opportunity to take a look back at what we feel is their finest album: 2010’s High Violet.
Previous albums, Alligator and Boxer, captured the attention of critics, as well as endearing them to an ever-blossoming audience. After several years of seeing their contemporaries, The Strokes, become global superstars, The National had finally started to see their hard work pay off. Their first two albums (The National and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers) had received very little attention. Although well reviewed, they were unable to shift the kind of numbers of units or tickets that would permit them to make music full time. By 2010, they had become industry darlings, but record sales weren’t what they should be for the rave reviews they were receiving.
Recorded by the band – with assistance from Peter Katis, who had worked on the previous two records with them – they set up camp in their own Brooklyn studio. The eleven-song set is a flawless example of highly emotive indie-rock.
Because we as a group of writers love this album so much, we decided to let our contributors explain their favourite tracks from the record:
Philip Moss: Bloodbuzz Ohio
Part of what makes Bloodbuzz Ohio such a special song is that it isn’t the archetypal National song. Yes, it has all the archetypal qualities we’ve come to expect from them, but it chews them up and spits them out somewhat differently.
But first of all, it’s important to put the song into context. Three years earlier, The National had released their fourth studio album, Boxer, to widespread critical acclaim, but having sold less than 10,000 copies in the US in its first week, the idea that they’d soon be Grammy winners who headline stadiums and festivals was inconceivable.
But it was High Violet’s first single, Bloodbuzz Ohio, that very much set them on that road.
Different to the vast majority of Boxer, the pianos on this one are buried, and despite there being a swarm of blood curdling, rip-roaring guitars that underpin Berninger’s David Berman meets Leonard Cohen baritone, it’s Bryan Deverndorf’s looping drums that provide its signature ‘riff’, before a sea of brass brings the song to its conclusion.
With its ambiguous money-centric lyrics – ‘I still owe money to the money to the money I owe,’ one assumes that singer/lyricist, Matt Berninger, is referencing his decision to quit his solid salaried job as a graphic designer to take a punt at being a rock star (which up to that point in 2010 had not proved a profitable decision). But despite the incoherent narrative, its ambiguity is a plus, as it allows the listener to take on their own meaning. Plus it’s a song just as much about feeling as content – and one you just can’t help but sing-a-long with!
Unsurprisingly, the song has become a firm live staple. And whenever I think about the song, I’m taken back to a show at Manchester Apollo in 2013 on the Trouble Will Find Me tour. In one of those perfect microcosmic moments – which are rare, but are the reason music lovers keep going to see live music – the song erupted, something you’d imagine that would be akin to an Oasis reunion show and the band was quite literally carried by a swarm of Mancunian voices.
So while it may not be the archetypal National song in so many ways, it has become one of their archetypal live songs, and was – for many – the gateway, not only to this wonderfully special album, but this wonderfully special band.
Joseph Purcell: England
From the exquisitely laden piano opening, England is a song of great beauty and grace. It has already ensnared the listener, encapsulated by the fantastic musical talents of the Dessner’s and the Devendorf’s even before Matt Berninger meanders into the song with his incredible voice.
With echoing drums akin to thunder clapping in the background, every ‘can someone’ from Berninger is elevated to an almost god like command. As with all The National’s moments of brilliance, the intertwinement of instrument and vocal are as perfect as they can be, with Berninger’s vocal floating perfectly, matched with the intricate tapestry of musicians at his back.
After initially being a song that drifts blissfully, England lurches into a different beast as the build hits. The drums, in typical National fashion, build gently throughout, Berninger moves from the smooth melancholy of his earlier delivery to the straining ferocity akin to his live performances as he chants- ‘Afraid of the high, stay the night with the sinners, afraid of the high, cause they’re desperate to entertain’. England, is the track off High Violet that to me most encapsulates the full sound of the National and their incredible ability to move from quiet contemplation to epic crescendo.
Mark Jackson: Lemonworld
As with much of The National back catalogue, Lemonworld is as lyrically cryptic as is it captivating musically. The song is no immediate standout if playing High Violet through for the first time. It is, however, the archetypal ‘slow burner’- a track that captures the listener’s attention upon a different facet of its character on every repeated addicted listen.
‘So happy I was invited,’ Berninger opens in his unique drone that undermines the sentient immediately. The front man has previously explained that ”a Lemonworld is an invented, sexy, weird place where you can escape from New York… it’s also very depressing and odd and beautiful.” Musically, the Devendorf and Dessner brothers encapsulate these sentiments exquisitely. The song is subtly layered around four guitar chords that seem never to be strummed at the same time by either of the Dessner’s. Instead, the guitars pan across the speakers, interweaving and allowing each other the space to add to the drama of a song that weaves a subtle uneasiness.
On frantic album opener Terrible Love, Berninger informs us that he ‘can’t fall asleep without a little help.’ His alcoholism is once more referenced within the obscure Lemonworld depression – ‘this pricey stuff makes me dizzy, I guess I’ve always been a delicate man, takes me a day to remember a day, I didn’t mean to let it get so far out of hand.’ There is a similarly deeply personal emotional critique in much that Berninger pens, but his self-deprecating uselessness is sharper on Lemonworld than elsewhere. The lines ‘I gave my heart to the Army, the only sentimental thing I could think of’ and ‘I’ll try to find something on this thing that means nothing’ are a difficult listen, but do induce a mesmerising melancholia that is difficult not to want to sadistically quickly revisit.
Lemonworld is the flawless illustration of everything wonderful about the masterful High Violet – the album which sets the standard against which all other modern alternative music should be judged.
Martin Ramsbottom: Afraid Of Everyone
Afraid of Everyone is Berninger writ large. It explores the neuroses of modern family life, how to provide and protect in an increasingly unstable present. Speaking to Spinner.com Berninger said, “Afraid of Everyone is anxiety and paranoia and not knowing how to deal with it…And desperately wanting to defend yourself and your family from the chaotic forces of evil, and you don’t even know what they are, or who’s right or who’s wrong and what to believe.’”
Struggling for a melody, it was Sufjan Stevens who originally constructed it on harmonium, which is presented on the recorded version as a steady current, understated, flowing through the track alongside his falsetto backing vocals that frame Berninger’s baritone as he delivers “with my kids on my shoulders I try not to hurt anybody I like/But I don’t have the drugs to sort it out”, one of his most startling vocal performances on any National record.
Phil Scarisbrick: Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
The album’s final track is the nearest the band stray towards folk rock. The result is a stomping Gregorian monk-esque chant drenched in strings and layered vocals. After all of the angst built up over the preceding ten tracks, here Berninger implores the character of ‘Vanderlyle’ to let it all go. By pushing him to cry it provides catharsis for the heavy subjects discussed throughout High Violet. By saying ‘I’ll explain everything to the geeks’ , Berninger is explaining that it’s ok to show your emotions to friends. It ties the whole record’s narrative together and closes the album with a message of hope.
Vanderlyle has since become a regular set-closer. Often performed completely unplugged, the band lead a mass communion to send their audience out into the night. Not only does it end this record perfectly, but – as they did in Victoria Park last night – also any National gig.